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Hernando public safety director reprimanded, told to implement Animal Services changes

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon issued a written warning to public safety director Mike Nickerson on Friday, saying that his failure to fully implement recommendations in the audit of Animal Services was "an act of grave concern to me.''

And Sossamon has significantly shortened Nickerson's time line for completing the work.

A week ago, after Sossamon received an investigative report on a dog that had been mistakenly euthanized earlier this month, the administrator temporarily assigned Nickerson to oversee Animal Services full time.

Previously, Nickerson had supervised both Animal Services and Hernando County Fire Rescue. Supervision of fire rescue has temporarily been given to Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief Mike Rampino.

In the past week, Nickerson has focused on preparing recommendations for county commissioners to consider at their Oct. 9 meeting.

Those include the temporary hiring of veterinarian Raul Figarola until a permanent managing veterinarian can be found, hiring someone to be an animal advocate and coordinator for rescue groups and volunteers, and hiring a veterinary technician.

The audit had recommended another new staff hire, but instead Nickerson said Friday that his proposal would be to use two trusties from the Hernando County Detention Center for eight hours a day.

Nickerson said he was more than 80 percent finished drawing up the new procedures and policies that will guide activities at the shelter. The latest case of mistaken euthanasia was partially blamed on a confusing mixture of procedures and practices at the shelter.

In that case, Animal Services officer Michael Steele checked the kennel number of a dog scheduled for euthanasia rather than the dog's identification number. The dog euthanized had just arrived at the shelter two days earlier and had been put into the kennel after someone had moved the dog chosen for euthanasia to another kennel.

The shelter staff now uses a checklist before euthanizing animals, and it specifically states that the employee must access the animal's kennel card "based on the animal number (not based on the kennel or cage number)."

The latest mistake stung because the county has been under fire since the quick euthanasia of a young mixed-breed dog named Zeus in April. Since that time, multiple studies identifying past problems at the shelter have been made public, and the department was audited by the clerk of the circuit court.

Nickerson had been charged by Sossamon with putting the audit recommendations into place and had been given several months to implement many of them. Then the second mistaken euthanasia occurred.

"Your failure to implement the recommendations of the audit performed by the clerk's office as I directed you to do represents an act of grave concern to me,'' Sossamon wrote in his warning on Friday. "This is simply not acceptable.

"I feel even though you have more time per the audit, that you should have spent more time at Animal Services. As you know, I want and expect the audit recommendations to be expedited.''

In his response, Nickerson doesn't duck the criticism, but points out that he's had a lot to do as the Animal Services controversy has been swirling — negotiating fire union contracts, moving through the merger process for the county's and Spring Hill's fire rescue operations, and working on a PowerPoint presentation for Sossamon's strategic plan for the county.

"With that said, my job is to be in-tune with your direction and to proactively anticipate and prevent major problems before they occur,'' Nickerson wrote. "Clearly I failed to meet that job requirement, on this occasion. I therefore accept your criticism as being justified.''

Nickerson, who makes $94,411 a year, notes that his job now is to immediately implement the audit recommendations, many of which depend on approval of additional funding by the County Commission.

He also states that he is "working at the maximum pace possible to vastly exceed the approved time deadlines. I trust that these maximized efforts will meet with your approval and accomplish all stated goals along an ASAP time frame.''

Nickerson said Friday that he is highly motivated to get the recommendations to the commission and get the shelter moving in the right direction. He did not know how much it will cost to implement the recommendations.

The timing for an increase of the Animal Services budget is not good.

The county just approved the budget for the fiscal year that starts Monday and had to draw from reserves to balance the spending plan. And for the 2013-14 fiscal year, officials anticipate having to find at least another $9 million in new revenue or cuts to balance the budget.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando public safety director reprimanded, told to implement Animal Services changes 09/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 28, 2012 8:10pm]

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