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    Wausau committee postpones decision on heavily-criticized humane officer proposal

    By Shereen Siewert,

    30 days ago
    Photo by Israyosoy S. on

    Damakant Jayshi

    After critics skewered a proposal to replace the humane officer with part-timers for animal control, Wausau’s Human Resources Committee postponed a decision for one month to allow for more research.

    Critics at the Monday committee meeting said the Wausau Police Department’s proposal would not improve services or increase revenue through pet licensing.

    Humane Officer Ashlee Bishop, whose job may be at risk if the police department succeeds, spoke against the proposal, noting a contradiction. The new plan aims to reduce police involvement in animal control but will actually increase it, she said. Three committee members – Terry Kilian, Gary Gisselman, and Victoria Tierney – agreed.

    All who spoke agreed that the workload for a humane officer is too much for one person. Marshfield, with a population less than half of Wausau’s 40,000, has had two trained ordinance control/humane officers, while Wausau has just one. Marshfield’s officers also have zoning administrative duties, a role that they took on in 2023.

    Kilian asked why the existing humane officer couldn’t get help from the proposed civil service officers instead of removing the position. She suggested looking for grants and funding as done for other roles and programs.

    Only the committee chair, Becky McElhaney, supported the new proposed model, saying the existing program fails to provide the desired services to the community. With a single humane officer, off-hours services are unavailable to residents, which has resulted in several complaints, McElhaney said.

    As they did last month, Wausau Police Capt. Nathan Cihlar and City Clerk Kaitlyn Bernarde presented the new model after Assistant City Attorney Tegan Troutner confirmed that it is legally permissible to review a program that doesn’t meet its goals.

    Troutner said the city aimed to increase pet licensing and reduce the number of hours patrol officers spent responding to calls for service through the program. That has not happened, she said, as the one-person program operates weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. only.

    City officials point to a significant loss in revenue after the Everest Metro Police Department withdrew from an intergovernmental agreement with Wausau on animal control. The loss of revenue is just under $17K per year, or about 18 percent of the budget. EMPD withdrew from the agreement after merging with Rothschild to create the Mountain Bay Metro Police Department, which will now handle animal control in the municipalities it serves.

    The new model in Wausau proposes hiring multiple part-time civil service officers – all non-sworn officers but who can be delegated citation authorities – under the police department umbrella, who could put in more hours than the Monday-Friday regular day hours Bishop now holds to better serve residents. The staff said this can be done within the budget of $75K that will remain after Everest Metro Police Dept. withdrew from the program. These part-timers could put in an additional 20 hours for a 60-hour-a-week service, Cihlar said.

    But Bishop said that 20 additional hours spread out over seven days is just an average of two hours and 45 minutes a day, which is still not enough.

    Bishop, who spoke during public comments on Monday, also said parts of the proposal – especially those related to her work – were misleading since it does not mention her contribution to handling calls and follow-up she provides after sworn officers take calls. Officials say an increasing number of sworn police officers are taking primary calls.

    The job description attached to the meeting packet leaves out one crucial qualification that animal experts say is a must: experience and qualification of a humane officer. Kilian asked why Bishop could not be retained at a reduced pay if she would accept it.

    Bishop told Wausau Pilot last month that she is open to the possibility of working at reduced pay. Her annual salary is about $75,000 plus benefits, for a total of about $91,000 in compensation. On the day of the Public Health and Safety Committee meeting last month, she received a letter of termination, effective Oct. 26.

    But McElhaney, who chairs the committee, said the group cannot discuss a person and should focus on the position.

    Gisselman motioned to table the proposal until the next month so that more research can be done about the qualifications required to be a successful humane officer as well as what qualifications the current officer had when she was hired for the role in 2013. Gisselman said just having an annual 40-hour training that the new model proposed is not enough.

    The motion passed in a voice vote. The committee also agreed to Martens’ suggestion of making humane officer’s training a mandatory part of the job description.

    Experts blast proposal, calling it wrong-headed

    While Bishop struggled at times to keep her emotions in check, Jody Lombard, former director of Humane Society of Marathon County and Stacy Welles, a veterinary technician, had serious criticism for the department’s proposal.

    “What I’m concerned about is handling abused, frightened, injured, aggressive animal and having CSOs and people who had a 40-hour training in handling animals,” Welles said, speaking after the presentation. “Having been in the field for eight years, it took me over a year to become comfortable dealing with fractious and scared animals.”

    Inadequately trained CSOs will be in harm’s way, she said.

    “I’m concerned putting people out on the streets and not having continual experience dealing with scared, terrified animals…and then you’re going to end up with legal expenses and lawsuits,” Welles said. She pointed to animals that are euthanized because they react poorly to people who are not trained to handle them and said that policy is not the way to “keep our community safe, to keep our people safe and to keep our animals safe as well.”

    Similarly, former Humane Society Director Lombard, who criticized the proposal last month, said she has known Bishop ever since she joined the organization as a volunteer when she was 13 years old and later hired her when she qualified for a staff position. Bishop has more than 13 years of experience, with over 300 hours of continued education.

    Lombard also questioned the argument that the animal care program in Wausau does not pay for itself.

    “We don’t expect our law enforcement…our fire department to self-fund,” she said. “This is an important community service.”

    Lombard said the city wants quality humane services and yet throws out the only qualified humane officer it has.

    “What I’m really afraid of is this proposal is not going to work,” she said. “You’re not going to see an increase in licensing, because that has to do with human nature more than anything else.”

    She also said more sworn officers will be forced to engage in animal control rather than attending to their primary duties.

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