Saturday, April 21, 2018
Editorials

Editor: New Port Richey animal control unit's failure ends risky experiment

The city of New Port Richey is correctly pulling the plug on its failed animal control experiment. Devised as a cost-savings measure in 2012, it relied heavily on unsupervised volunteers and crumbled quickly amid mismanagement and a lack of accountability.

Over just 15 months, the animal control unit fractured working relationships with both the Police Department and the SPCA, ended up using kennels 20 miles outside the city limits, and was at the center of a public records lawsuit that cost the city nearly $3,000 to settle.

It is just too troublesome and embarrassing for the city to continue this amateurish effort just to rationalize a projected $26,000 savings. It is an important lesson. Local governments cannot skimp on animal control operations. In Hernando County, for instance, commissioners kept whittling animal control resources amid annual budget constraints, but eventually had to reverse course. In 2012, that county invested $245,000 in its understaffed animal services program after workers failed to follow their own protocols and euthanized a misidentified dog.

The trouble in New Port Richey evolved not from euthanasia, but from volunteers' self-appointed mission to try to rescue every animal even though the city never formally adopted a no-kill policy. It led to insubordination, vitriolic and off-base criticism of the former police chief who questioned the unit's operations and the eventual departure of experienced personnel who said volunteers allowed sick animals to suffer rather than put them down humanely.

The missing transparency became apparent when the head volunteer attempted to cover up a highly contagious virus outbreak that coincided with the death of 10 animals adopted from the then-adjoining SPCA Suncoast kennels. Eventually, the unit moved to vacant kennels in Land O'Lakes, 20 miles from its service area.

Unfortunately the opacity spilled into the courts when the city demanded $2,300 before releasing veterinary records to an Animal Protection Unit critic requesting public documents. Jessica Caplette sued and, as part of the settlement, the city not only had to fork over the records, but had to pay Caplette's legal expenses of $2,846.

When the City Council authorized the animal protection unit, the former city manager called the volunteer operation a risk, but a risk worth taking. Rather than innovative, it turned out to be expensive and ill-conceived. Next week, the County Commission will consider approving a contract to again assume animal control duties in the county's largest city for a $113,000 first-year fee. Commissioners shouldn't hesitate to bless the arrangement and to return professionally run animal control services to New Port Richey.

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