TAMPA — Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill is once again turning to outside help to address problems at the county's animal shelter.
While shelter management has made strides, including tamping down animal illness outbreaks, Merrill says challenges persist — as evidenced by the recent euthanization of a dog that already had been picked for adoption. That was not an isolated case, and the administrator says customer service at the shelter remains wanting as the county seeks to dramatically lower the number of animals killed each year.
Merrill will ask the County Commission next month for permission to contract with a former Temple Terrace city manager to help Animal Services director Ian Hallett, now in his second year there. He also will convert three vacant jobs to more skilled positions and dispatch two department heads to advise Hallett.
In a memo to commissioners, Merrill characterized Hallett as a "deeply caring person of integrity" who came to the county with "impeccable" credentials. "Nevertheless, missteps and miscalculations have occurred," Merrill wrote. "None of us anticipated the difficulty of instituting change in the organization."
Merrill partly blamed the negative attention on activists loyal to prior management, which was all but forced out as commissioners embraced the no-kill or low-kill movement. He also suggested that the shelter is not set up physically for the emphasis on adoptions.
His memo immediately met blowback from some animal welfare advocates, who have been riding Merrill and Hallett for months. They have decried incidences of preventable disease coursing through the shelter, fed by crowding and perceived shabby treatment of rank-and-file employees and volunteers.
"How many senior managers does it take to ruin an animal shelter?" asked longtime advocate Art Fyvolent, in a response email to Merrill's memo.
Fyvolent is among those calling for Hallett's head. Hallett came to the county from a shelter in Austin, Texas, to take on his first director's job. Fyvolent says the County Commission made a mistake in pursuing a no-kill philosophy, not recognizing the challenges it would present, and says Hallett was not prepared to handle the transition.
"They jumped on this bandwagon way too fast without thoroughly investigating what would happen if they did it," Fyvolent said in an interview.
In his memo, Merrill praised efforts to reduce the number of animals killed at the shelter each year because they fail to find new homes.
The shelter has increased the number of dogs and cats adopted this year compared with last by about 2,500.
But it has gotten an extraordinary amount of attention for such a small county operation because of problems managing diseases and because of defections from veterinarians.
In the past year alone, Merrill has assigned two of his top four deputies to spend much of their time examining how animals and the employees who take care of them are managed.
The county has sought help from the University of South Florida, a management consultant and volunteers from MacDill Air Force Base to help Hallett. Animal Control officers who investigate abuse and neglect complaints were moved to code enforcement.
Commissioners expedited the spending of $250,000 this year to beef up the shelter staff.
Attempts to reach Merrill were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Hallett said he believes the shelter is close to implementing strategies to increase adoptions. At the commission's direction, he said, the shelter is trying to greatly reduce the number of animals killed.
"That is a radical change from the way things have been done in the past," he said. "I do think this is a temporary situation. I'm grateful for the help."
Under Merrill's proposal, former Temple Terrace City Manager Kim Leinbach would step in as a temporary contract employee and serve in a senior management role.
Code Enforcement director Dexter Barge and library chief Joe Stines would offer advice on setting ways to track progress and improving customer service.
The moves come on the heels of publicity about the shelter euthanizing a 1-year-old German shepherd earlier this month after a family had applied to adopt it.
Merrill's memo indicated the pup was the fourth such case in the past year.