High Drama at Hi-Tor

Hi-Tor Animal Care Center in Pomona has been the primary shelter for Rockland County’s stray or abandoned animals since 1972, and a “low kill” shelter for the last decade. But a stalled new multi-million dollar facility, rapid board turnover, accusations of poor management and even a lawsuit have cast a pall over the shelter in recent years. Orangetown, citing poor management and ongoing disputes between the shelter’s board and shelter staff, is withdrawing its financial support, and for 2021 will contract with Hudson Valley Humane Society for animal control services (dogs only).

Fees paid by Rockland County’s five townships cover about 40 percent of the shelter’s approximately $900,000 in operating costs. The rest is covered by donations and grants. The board is currently eight volunteers, and the shelter is run by a paid staff of 20 employees, many part time. A large pool of volunteers collects donations and helps with the care and training of animals.

For years, Hi-Tor’s building has been recognized as decrepit and overcrowded, and the shelter has failed numerous inspections. Rockland County, the owner of the Pomona land and building, has promised to build a new facility with state and county funds set aside in 2018, but the project remains plagued by delays. But a new building won’t solve Hi-Tor’s internal management problems. Former employees and volunteers say the shelter’s board is opaque, defensive and unresponsive to the needs of salaried employees and dismissive of complaints from volunteers.

In November 2018, apparently fed up with what he considered deplorable conditions at the shelter and inaction on the part of the board, Michael Santucci, the center’s longtime manager, left the facility to, he says, complain directly to Rockland County Executive Ed Day. He was immediately fired by the board and accused of job abandonment. Two other staff members quit in protest. In January 2021, Sanducci and another former employee, James Joseph, filed a discrimination suit against Rockland County and the shelter’s board for discrimination against Joseph who is Black. Some former employees say their hours were cut without explanation and volunteers say they were dismissed without cause. One volunteer was banned from the Hi-Tor Facebook page when she pushed for information about delays with the new building.

In a February radio interview on WRCR, Hi-Tor board president Debbie DiBernardo said she is dismayed by Orangetown’s decision not to renew their contract. She says Hi-Tor is doing the best with what they have. “We’d like to come together and see what people are looking for,” she says during the interview, “and show them how far we’ve come.” She would not comment about volunteer complaints, staffing issues, financial structure or the discrimination suit.

Some say the county should hire an outside professional entity to manage the shelter. Haverstraw Town Supervisor Howard Phillips is quoted in Rockland County Business Journal as suggesting Rockland Green, a company contracted by the county to handle solid waste management, could do the job. Rockland Green is a huge organization with a $63.4 million annual budget and Phillips happens to be its chairman. There is no confirmation that Rockland Green is being considered to manage the facility.

As the county fumbles to come up with a humane plan for the care of its stray animals, and as the Hi- Tor board obfuscates, volunteers and staff continue to care for the hundreds of animals coming through Hi-Tor’s dilapidated doors.