LAURINBURG — As the county considers placing animal control responsibilities with the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office, this week health officials defended their management of that department.
Currently, animal control operates under the auspices of the Scotland County Health Department, which employs two animal control officers in its environmental health unit.
“Animal control in this county has been with the health department,” said Bengie Hair, the county’s health director. “It seems to be that the sheriff would like animal control to be in the purview of the sheriff’s department.”
If the sheriff’s office took over animal control for the county, animal control officers would be expected to pursue basic law enforcement training and certifications in order to become sworn deputies. As law enforcement, animal control officers would also have the authority to obtain search warrants and formally charge offenders with a crime.
“There’s a big difference in how people treat an animal control officer versus a sworn officer,” said County Manager Kevin Patterson. “That would be the primary benefit to this situation. A sworn officer has more authority in handling the situation and will probably wind up keeping people from becoming belligerent in cases.”
The sheriff’s office could only take charge of animal control with the approval of the Scotland County Board of Commissioners. According to Hair, about 30 percent of the sheriffs in the state administer animal control for their respective counties.
“There may be some manpower issues that benefit them, but we have had very few instances where an animal control officer had to call for a deputy to come to the scene in the effort to take a dog in,” Hair said. “We’re waiting for the sheriff to tell us why they want to take this over.”
State statute requires health directors and boards of health to take responsibility for animals that pose a danger to the public. The health department also has a direct statutory obligation when it comes to managing rabies-related cases.
“Ultimately it falls back on the health department and the health director to report and manage the situations that occur,” he said.
Hair said that local health departments are typically capable of managing animal control in smaller counties, and that moving animal control into the domain of law enforcement may limit the health department’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities. In a worst case scenario, Hair said that health officials could hear about a dog bite through local media long before receiving an official report.
“My concern is that there have been situations where animal control operations moved out of the health department and either the city or entity managing those operations did not follow through with the health department obligations in a routine and regular basis to ensure the regulations were in compliance,” he said.
The board of health plans to resume discussion of animal control during its Sept. 15 meeting, which it has invited Sheriff Ralph Kersey to attend. Kersey declined to comment on the matter this week, preferring not to discuss it until a decision is made.
“Until we hear from the sheriff we really don’t have a good, clear idea as to why this would be a benefit to the Scotland County community,” said Hair, who believes that the health department is capable of continuing to handle animal control.
“I think we have our situation as far as animal control under control.”
Abby Hackmann can be reached at 910-506-3171.