In Hernando County government lingo, "discuss'' is now a synonym for "quash.'' Case in point: County staff proposed to eliminate the county practice of loaning cages for trapping feral cats. But the plan fell victim to continued delays, promised discussions and ultimately a predetermined decision reached without public input. The episode erodes public confidence in open government and indicates at least one board member has moved beyond setting policy to micro-managing departments.
On April 9, county staff members, including the veterinarian recently hired to run the Animal Services department, explained why they wanted to end the trap loans. The cages get loaned and never returned. Many are broken. And, most notably, the policy simply leads to an increased kill-rate at the county shelter where euthanasia awaits 95 percent of the cats received by Animal Services. The county would still accept cats delivered to the shelter, according to the plan, it would simply stop empowering the residents who turn the adoption center into a mortuary.
After an abbreviated presentation, Commissioner Wayne Dukes promised to vote against the plan, so the board scheduled a full discussion for April 23. On that date, they heard more details, but scheduled a full vetting for a May 7 workshop. The delays signaled the inevitable outcome. Five days ago, there was no workshop and only limited discussion because Dukes had already derailed the idea.
Any talk of humane treatment of cats gave way to fixing cages, charging a pricey deposit to encourage return of the loaners, and not worrying about how many felines end up dead at the shelter.
"When did this change? I didn't know that we voted to do that,'' asked Commissioner Diane Rowden.
She was right. The commission hadn't acted on the staff's original recommendation. When she made the motion to stop loaning traps, it died with no second. Instead, the commission voted 4-1, with Rowden dissenting, to simply do a better job of loaning traps.
It is unfortunate because much of the debate was colored by Dukes' off-base observations that the county would be at risk of lawsuits if it moved to a trap-neuter-release program even though no such effort had been proposed. His inaccurate statements showed exactly why a workshop and full discussion would have been beneficial to the board.
Hernando has been loaning cages to trap feral cats for 23 years. It's an ineffective way to control the stray cat population. The county would be better served by a more progressive approach that would discourage the high euthanasia rate that costs time and money and hurts employee morale.
There are plenty of models to follow. Pasco County began a low-cost spay and neuter program last year, using animal license fees to offset the costs, as a way to reduce the kill rate at its shelter. It also no longer accepts feral or stray cats delivered to the shelter. A 6-year-old charity coordinates a trap-neuter-release program in which cages are loaned by animal hospitals and the captured cats are sterilized and vaccinated for a $10 fee. In Hillsborough County, commissioners just approved a similar plan to sterilize some free-roaming cats and return them to their habitat.
The Hernando Commission was correct to reshape its Animal Services department last year following a critical performance audit and the high-profile gaffe of euthanizing a dog almost immediately after it had been turned in by its owner. But, commissioners also must have faith in the leadership of their new Animal Service manager, Dr. Lisa Centonze, who proposed the plan to eliminate traps.
It does little good to invest in new management if the commission is intent to stick with dated, unreliable methods of controlling animals.