Wednesday, January 17, 2018

End suffering of ill-fated animal unit

New Port Richey's animal control experiment is failing, and the city must repair or replace this amateurish department with a professionally led effort. Conceived as a cost-savings maneuver, the volunteer-heavy unit has brought unauthorized veterinary expenses, faces little accountability and attempted to cover up a highly contagious virus outbreak that coincided with the death of 10 animals adopted from the adjoining SPCA Suncoast kennels.

Relying on volunteers also has led to insubordination without retribution and has sabotaged the city's working relationship with the SPCA. That included volunteers' bad-mouthing a trained expert who determined that an aggressive pit bull with a large tumor was not suitable for adoption. Instead, the untrained volunteers did their own assessment and ran up a $1,400 veterinary bill to treat the animal.

The embarrassment to the city is not worth $26,000 in projected annual savings. That was the savings estimate before it became clear the volunteers' mission to try to rescue every animal would conflict with the city's plan to respond to animal complaints more efficiently than in a previous contract with Pasco County Animal Services.

The red flags were there from the outset when the former city manager called the volunteer department a risk, but a risk worth taking. At the time, the city faced a projected $17 million, five-year budget deficit and scrimped for every savings possible. Meanwhile, the county administrator overseeing Pasco's animal control department warned the city that animal services is "one of the toughest jobs in the county.'' A planned licensing program was delayed, construction of city kennels hasn't materialized and the loaned space from the SPCA is now being used under a handshake agreement after the prior memorandum of understanding expired.

The missing professionalism allowed volunteers to unfairly scapegoat departing police Chief James Steffens, inaccurately portraying him as the bad guy trying to undermine an animal control unit of which he never wanted oversight.

Actually, Steffens championed accountability, but that seems to be of little concern elsewhere. The volunteers can operate without important financial restrictions after Interim City Manager Susan Dillinger said the volunteers didn't need preapproval for veterinarian bills.

"It's time we start trusting our volunteers,'' Dillinger said in a Feb. 8 email to Steffens.

Some trust. Consider:

Animal control officer Jeff McReynolds backed a city-owned vehicle into a parked motorcycle and failed to document the accident until weeks later.

His wife, Sharon McReynolds, is the head volunteer who failed to notify City Hall or the neighboring SPCA when two dogs died of parvovirus. A few weeks later, she told police Officer Greg Williams, in an email, "we appreciate if this is kept somewhat quiet, as it could become a nightmare in the press.'' The SPCA lost 10 dogs to the virus and refunded adoption fees to the families who unknowingly took home sick animals. As a result, the SPCA wants to evict the city from the kennel property for failing to disclose the virus outbreak.

Meanwhile, Beth Robbins, a volunteer animal control officer with a professional resume that included both animal control and law enforcement experience, resigned two weeks ago, saying the New Port Richey unit allowed sick animals to suffer rather than violate the department's self-adopted no-kill policy.

The city has two alternatives. It can hire its own professional staff to try to run the department of volunteers and simultaneously absorb the capital expense of building kennels and establish proper procedures for controlling expenses and fund-raising that are lacking. Or the city can seek to negotiate a new contract with Pasco County Animal Services, which itself is aiming for a 90 percent save rate of animals taken to the county shelter in Land O'Lakes.

City officials started down this path because they thought they could provide better service than the county at a better price. As it stands now, New Port Richey can provide no service because of the volunteers' fractured working relationship with Steffens, who joins the Pasco Sheriff's Office next week, and with the SPCA, which wants the unit off its property. It's time for the city to put this animal control effort out of its misery.

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