BROOKSVILLE — The staff has been accused of animal abuse and neglect. The operation has been scrutinized by veterinarians, volunteers and an auditor. County officials have even considered privatizing it. On Tuesday, the future of Hernando County Animal Services became even cloudier as commissioners considered options for their 2012-13 budget.
The commission agreed to begin negotiating with the sheriff for his takeover of the four Animal Services officers, while county staffers pitched an idea to restructure the other department that shares space and a manager at the shelter site — county Code Enforcement.
The discussion raised questions by some animal welfare advocates, who wanted to know why the county would even consider making such sweeping changes to the department before the release of the ongoing audit of Animal Services.
That audit and investigation was ordered after the euthanization of a young pit bull mix named Zeus in mid April. The dog was euthanized just 12 minutes after it was turned in by a family member for adoption, igniting a firestorm of criticism of the shelter and its staff.
Under the county staff proposal for Code Enforcement, the four existing code officers would move under the building official in the Land Services Department, along with an administrative secretary and a customer service employee. Supervising Code Enforcement would be the embattled Animal Services manager, Liana Teague.
Land Services director Ron Pianta said he had already talked to Teague about the possible change.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes questioned whether code enforcement was a state-mandated function. Pianta said it was not, but that it was something the public has come to expect.
Dukes suggested moving only two of the four officers and eliminating the other positions to help reduce the deficit in the county's general fund, but Pianta said the job couldn't be done adequately with that level of staffing.
Teague told commissioners the relocation of Code Enforcement would be a good move, but that with those employees leaving the shelter and the Animal Services officers going to the Sheriff's Office, there would be just four kennel workers and two support staffers left to run the shelter.
That's "not enough staff'' to provide for the animals and the community, she said.
Dukes asked if she had enough volunteers at the shelter. Teague said there are some volunteers who assist with animals and customer service, but that the core work of the shelter is done by the kennel workers, with some help from the Animal Service officers.
Commissioner Dave Russell asked Sheriff Al Nienhuis if help from the officers would still be allowed at the shelter if he begins to oversee them. Nienhuis said he would be a team player, but that he needed the animal officers who help his staff in responding to animal calls.
Working at the shelter, in addition to their enforcement work, also could create confusion over who reports to whom, he added.
Teague said the commission needed to find more resources for the shelter.
"That's where the audit is really going to help us,'' Russell said.
Audit Services director Peggy Caskey said last week that she anticipates release of the audit this month.
Joanne Schoch, executive director for the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, expressed concern about the proposed changes for Animal Services workers, especially since the audit findings have yet to be released.
"I have a real concern that this seems to be premature,'' Schoch said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.