NEW PORT RICHEY — Mayor Bob Consalvo put his assessment of the city's volunteer animal protection unit in stark terms:
It is in "shambles," he said.
"It's just not a viable program right now until we work these issues out," he told the Times on Thursday.
A series of revelations and resignations has drawn scrutiny to New Port Richey's volunteer-run animal control program. Beth Robbins, one of the volunteer animal control officers, resigned last week amid her concerns that some animals were suffering needlessly instead of being euthanized. The other volunteer officer, Jeff McReynolds, was sidelined from using a city vehicle amid Robbins' allegations that he hit a parked motorcycle and was taking medication that could interfere with his duties (a claim his wife, head volunteer Sharon McReynolds, vehemently denied).
Though volunteers continue to care for the animals at the city kennels, there are no officers handling new animal complaints. Emergency calls are being routed to New Port Richey police Officer Greg Williams.
And the SPCA Suncoast, which loaned a spare kennel building to the city's fledgling animal control program, said it wants the volunteer group out as soon as possible. SPCA Suncoast executive director Jennie Briguglio said the city volunteers failed to tell her about a parvo outbreak at the city kennels that, she believes, spread to the SPCA shelter, killing 10 dogs.
Then there are the concerns that police Chief James Steffens, who oversees the program, raised in memos to interim City Manager Susan Dillinger. He described how Sharon McReynolds spent $1,400 on medical care for an aggressive pit bull that Steffens said should have been euthanized.
Taken together, the incidents troubled the mayor.
Two days removed from a City Council meeting during which supporters of the city's volunteer unit packed City Hall to voice their displeasure over Steffens' strained relationship with McReynolds and the unit, Consalvo said the entire program needs a full assessment.
"It's turned into a much bigger program than we expected," he said.
Consalvo said the mass showing by McReynolds' supporters Tuesday was a surprise to him and the tone they took was "unfortunate." Commentary from the crowd included calling Steffens a "monster," a "dog killer" and a "liar."
Consalvo said he wanted to allow the residents to air their views, but he wished they had been more civil.
"They trashed the chief and I don't think it was fair," Consalvo said. "There were a lot of allegations and not a lot of fact. I think it shows his character that he came to the meeting knowing that it was going to happen."
Consalvo said the city needs a full assessment of what the council expects of the volunteers to see if the program can move forward.
"At this point the volunteers and the interim city manager need to sit down and discuss exactly what we expect with regard to this program in order to move forward," Consalvo said.
Consalvo said if those assessments do not go well, he is prepared to inquire with Pasco County about taking back animal control services in the city.
For years, New Port Richey had contracted with the county to provide animal control services, but last fall the city terminated the contract to launch its own volunteer-run program.
The city's volunteer program is still viable and glitches were not unexpected, said Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe.
The regret is that the council was unaware of the rifts and issues associated with the program, he said.
"I'm not ready to throw in the towel on it. Obviously we have issues we are now aware of and we can begin addressing them," he told the Times.
City Council member Bill Phillips agreed. The first step will be moving the unit out from under the police department.
"This should have been under the city manager's direct purview from the beginning to monitor on a daily basis," Phillips said. "And I think we need to be very clear as we interview with prospective city manager candidates that this is going to be part of the job."
Consalvo said he, too, wants to keep the program up and running, but it has to be overseen by a department other than police.
"We have a lot of issues concerning crime in the city and that's what our police department needs to be focusing on," he said.