BROOKSVILLE — With Hernando County Animal Services under fire and under investigation, County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes wants to explore privatizing the animal shelter.
But some in the animal welfare community question the timing and wonder if such a move would do more harm than good.
Dukes said that when he recently heard Sheriff Al Nienhuis pitch the idea of saving the county $300,000 annually by placing the four Animal Services officers under his department, but had no interest in operating the shelter, it made him wonder about other options.
Dukes also met recently with Joanne Schoch, executive director for the Humane Society of the Nature Coast. She has been concerned about the firestorm of criticism against Animal Services since volunteers at the shelter spoke up about a young, adoptable dog named Zeus that was euthanized just 12 minutes after it arrived at the shelter in mid April.
The audit services department of the clerk of the circuit court is examining several issues that have been raised at Animal Services. But Dukes said the county shouldn't feel its hands are tied as it awaits completion of the audit, which could be in July.
So Dukes met with Russell Wetherington, the county's chief procurement officer, to discuss developing a request for proposals, seeking private companies or organizations interested in running the shelter. Wetherington said Wednesday he is in the process of developing the request, which will be considered by the commission June 26.
Commissioners have not yet decided whether to transfer the four Animal Services officers to the Sheriff's Office.
Dukes mentioned the privatization idea at the commission's budget workshop on Tuesday, and for some Animal Services workers, that was the first they had heard about the possible change, according to Mike Nickerson, the county's public safety director.
Other places have outside organizations involved in shelter operations, Dukes said. Having someone else take on the responsibility "might make the situation more palatable with citizens," he said.
He acknowledged that "there might not be any takers,'' but added, "As a commissioner, it's an idea we need to talk about.''
Regardless of whether the county moves forward to seek proposals, Dukes said the commission is committed to making necessary changes at the shelter once the audit is released.
Dukes said he asked Schoch whether her organization was interested in taking on the shelter operations; her response was that it was up to her board of directors.
Schoch had been in discussions with county officials last year about taking on a portion of the operation, but the discussions were shut down by then-County Administrator David Hamilton, Schoch said.
Since then, the Humane Society has purchased a site for future expansion.
But if the county decides to seek private proposals, Schoch said she wouldn't rule out the possibility that her group would be interested.
"We're always open to doing whatever is in the best interest of the animals and would add to the live releases,'' she said.
The idea does not sit well with Laurie Boynton, the shelter volunteer who photographed Zeus when he was brought to the shelter in order to put him up for adoption.
She said she found it odd that the county was entertaining such a drastic change before the audit is released, and she pointed out that county officials have said they would not discuss shelter operations while the audit is under way.
"Government should be run by the government,'' and Animal Services is a government function, Boynton said.
But county government is in the midst of a financial crisis that could have an impact on Animal Services.
County officials are painting a bleak picture as they prepare their 2012-13 budget and said this week that entire departments might have to be shut down in order to balance the budget.
The current annual budget for Animal Services is $743,164.
Boynton said the county has an obligation to care for abused, abandoned and neglected animals and should levy taxes at an appropriate level to provide that service.
She also said the idea of a private group running the shelter is scary because, if the motivation is profit there might be a tendency to euthanize at a higher rate.
Instead of privatizing, the county needs to fix its problems, she said.
"I think it's a cop-out for them to say, 'We're having a problem with this. Let's just hand it over to someone else,' " Boynton said.
The privatization idea "kind of took everyone, even insiders, by surprise,'' said Richard Silvani, executive director of the PetLuv Nonprofit Spay and Neuter Clinic in Brooksville, who has an agreement to provide medical services at the county shelter.
While Silvani said privatized shelters can work, the timing couldn't be worse for Hernando County "when we're on the verge of making the necessary changes at Animal Services,'' he said.
The auditor, who met with Silvani on Wednesday, is assembling information from her interviews and from extensive studies that have been done at the shelter by an independent veterinarian and the University of Florida to present a full picture of what Animal Services needs, he said.
Privatizing the shelter now, Silvani said, would be "very risky and ill-advised, and it isn't going to solve the problem.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.