NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council members are moving forward with an ordinance to establish a volunteer-staffed animal control unit, even though one of the plan's creators has pulled out and the other has expressed serious doubts.
The city faces an Oct. 1 deadline to take over animal control services from the county. City officials signed on to a plan for New Port Richey police to partner with a volunteer animal protection unit, believing a local program would save the city money while handling complaints more quickly than the county.
For months, however, the plan's creators — veterinarian Terry Spencer and Sharon McReynolds, CEO of the downtown medical firm Advanced Healthcare Alternatives — have raised red flags that the program isn't ready and that time was slipping away.
During a first hearing Tuesday evening, McReynolds told the council that Spencer has pulled out of the project over frustration that the ordinance is missing key parts of the proposal.
Spencer did not return a call Wednesday for comment.
Last week during a council work session, McReynolds also threatened to pull out of the project but held off as City Manager John Schneiger and police Chief James Steffens promised to ramp up their efforts. Among other things, they promised to fasttrack constructing kennels at the police department.
Dissent in recent weeks has shocked the council. Schneiger acknowledged Tuesday the city is "a little bit behind" in getting the program launched.
Mayor Bob Consalvo said Tuesday he had been prepared to go back to the county to seek services. He called for McReynolds and volunteers to commit to getting the program launched and not leave city police officers "dog catching instead of doing police work."
"If you are going to do it, do it," he said.
The biggest sticking point for McReynolds is that the ordinance does not include a dog and cat licensing program. The volunteer proposal included a licensing effort to bring in revenue and create a way to track and protect animals in the city. It's unclear how much work the program would mean for city staff, though.
McReynolds also expressed concern that the ordinance doesn't address cats at all. The volunteers' plan was to phase in handling feral cats down the road, but she said the volunteer unit should have the ability to handle cats that are lost, injured or in danger.
Steffens said the city plans to phase in licensing and handling cats in the months after the program launches, which led to a stalemate with McReynolds.
"We have a pretty good divide that's been created this week," Steffens said.
Now, instead of pulling out, McReynolds has agreed to negotiate with city staff on a memorandum outlining how the sticking points will be phased into the program.
"I'm very proud of them for thinking outside the box," McReynolds told the council, referring to city staff.
The city has already earmarked $57,000 for program startup costs, and after eliminating its $59,000 contract with the county for animal services, the city has estimated a $26,000 annual savings.
The council will hold a second ordinance meeting in two weeks, but members of the board expressed concern over the recent dust ups and called for continued communication between the two sides.
Especially in light of the fact that county officials told New Port Richey not to come back for help if they canceled their contract with Pasco Animal Services — a point council member Bill Phillips raised.
"I don't think we want to go back to the county," he said.