Hernando County taxpayers must decide whether they favor dogs and cats over dollars and cents. Their elected county commissioners are confronting a distressing audit of the Animal Services operations simultaneously with a proposed county budget that contains no additional money for fixes.
It means no resources to implement one of the key recommendations for improving Animal Services: hiring staff to better manage the volunteers who came on board a year ago in response to earlier budget reductions at the shelter. And, without improved supervision, animal advocates believe the county instead will gut its volunteer program.
Volunteerism should not be discouraged. Over the past year, the county teamed with veterinarians, a dog trainer and volunteer dog walkers and cat handlers and also accepted donations of dog beds and photography services, all aimed at enhancing pet adoptions. The outside assistance and the attention focused on Animal Services in the three months after the controversial euthanasia of an 8-month-old mixed-breed dog named Zeus point to a stronger commitment to seeing animals adopted rather than killed. It is a turnaround the county attributed to the volunteers, county employees, animal rescue operations and those adopting the pets.
The death of Zeus on April 13, just minutes after he was dropped off, sparked a public outcry and resulted in the county-ordered internal audit. Released this month, the audit found a shelter with temporary policies, poor record keeping, unfocused marketing of adoptable animals, an excessive cat population and a kennel staff one-third below "the optimum to humanely care for kenneled animals when the population reaches the shelter's capacity.''
One of the misguided recommendations is to take in fewer animals, rather than expand staff. Unfortunately, it isn't surprising.
A year ago, an internal report on Animal Services urged administrators to avoid further budget cuts to the department that already had been downsized, merged with code enforcement and put under the command of the county fire chief. Less than a month later, however, the county proposed eliminating a full-time kennel worker and a half-time animal services supervisor and parking an animal transport vehicle.
In April, commission Chairman Wayne Dukes correctly said the county government failed its animal advocates. Since, he has told the public inaccurately that the county has not cut services.
It is a disingenuous juxtaposition. Four years of declining property values, along with commissioners' reluctance to raise more revenue, has eliminated jobs, ended Saturday operating hours at the shelter, forced an over-reliance on volunteers, prompted two internal reviews of the Animal Services department and now brought a proposal to turn the field officers over to the Sheriff's Office.
It's a patchwork system in need of repair. Without an investment, residents should just plan on hearing more platitudes about government failing its animal advocates.