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Proposed fixes for Hernando County Animal Services carry costly price tag

BROOKSVILLE — For months, Hernando County residents have heard the Animal Services horror stories. Later this month, the County Commission will consider the price tag of the recommended fixes — and it won't be cheap.

On Oct. 23, public safety director Mike Nickerson will ask commissioners to consider a reorganizational plan that would cost an additional $245,000 in the current budget year. The plan would add to the staff a veterinarian who would also be the shelter manager, along with someone to coordinate volunteers and rescues, a veterinary technician and two trusties from the county jail.

The current Animal Services budget is just over $400,000.

Since the budget for the county's 2012-13 fiscal year is already set, Nickerson will propose that the county's reserves be tapped to cover the additional costs.

"Staff understands well that the use of reserves is never a welcomed recommendation, however, in this case the alternative is even more undesirable,'' Nickerson wrote in his proposal.

A more permanent solution is proposed for the 2013-14 budget year. Nickerson suggests taking the cost of Animal Services out of the general fund and instead paying for it with a public safety fee through a municipal services taxing unit.

The public safety taxing unit would serve two purposes. It would fund Animal Services as well as countywide emergency medical services. By Oct. 1, 2013, the county will have completed the merger of Hernando County and Spring Hill fire-rescue units, and a funding mechanism to pay for EMS will be needed.

Nickerson estimates that the cost of running Animal Services through that taxing unit would be approximately one-tenth of a mill, or 10 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value.

While the reorganizational plan would cost more than the current budget, it is still a reduction from last year's spending plan. That is primarily because the sheriff took over Animal Services officers at the beginning of the fiscal year, saving the county approximately $300,000, Nickerson noted on Friday.

Animal Services has been under scrutiny since April, when the euthanasia of a young dog named Zeus, which had been surrendered at the shelter just minutes earlier, prompted a public outcry. Another euthanasia mistake last month earned Nickerson a written warning from County Administrator Len Sossamon, who ordered him to immediately implement recommendations to make improvements at the shelter, including establishing permanent policies and procedures.

The need to beef up the staff, which has been gutted over the last few years by budget cuts, is documented in a recent county audit of Animal Services and in other investigations by outside entities over the past year.

Yet another example of the ongoing problems occurred this week and riled up several animal welfare advocates in the community, including Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast.

Schoch contacted reporters Friday, upset over the delay in the euthanasia of a sick dog left at the shelter Wednesday.

A medium-size brown female Labrador retriever was found at the Publix store in Brooksville and was dropped off at the shelter. The dog was covered with sores, according to the intake report.

On Thursday, veterinarian Raul Figarola and his girlfriend, Mandy Celt, a former Animal Services staff member, were visiting the shelter to collect an injured Chihuahua to treat and offer up for adoption. While there, they saw the retriever, swollen with infection, hairless and covered with the sores typical of a dog with mange, Celt said.

Figarola confirmed the mange diagnosis and was so upset by the dog's suffering that he cried. He called Nickerson, who was on his way back to Hernando County at the end of a vacation. Nickerson told him to mark his observations on the dog's kennel card.

"It is sad that an animal has to stay in a cage suffering while we as humans need to make a decision,'' Figarola wrote on the card. "It is not easy for life is precious. But suffering is WRONG. 10:47 a.m. I called Chief Nickerson, advised treat or euthanize.''

Schoch visited the shelter later that day, and kennel workers told her of Figarola's visit. She also examined the dog, which was shivering in its cage. She said she cried and immediately called Sossamon, who asked acting Hernando County Fire Chief Mike Rampino to check into the situation.

Rampino immediately went to the shelter and signed off on the euthanasia, which was completed late Thursday.

Nickerson said Friday that he had given verbal permission to euthanize the dog. The staff, he said, has standing orders to notify a veterinarian if they have an animal in distress.

Having a veterinarian on site to deal with issues like the retriever's is critical, Nickerson said.

He said he hopes commissioners will see it that way when they consider his reorganizational plan.

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

Proposed fixes for Hernando County Animal Services carry costly price tag 10/12/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 6:28pm]

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