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Hernando County's problem deeper than dog's death

A year ago, an internal report on Hernando County 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 a series of reductions to help close a $5.7 million budget deficit that included eliminating a full-time kennel worker, a half-time animal services supervisor and parking an animal transport vehicle. Plan on staffers working more independently with less supervision, administrators said.

The penny-pinching strategy, brought on by four years of declining property values and commissioners reluctant to raise the overall tax rate, helped produce fatal consequences for Zeus, an 8-month-old mixed-breed dog euthanized by Animal Services on April 13 shortly after he'd been dropped off at the shelter.

Budget cuts have eliminated Saturday operations at the county shelter, even though the SPCA reports its adoption center is at its busiest during the weekends, when families and working-age adults can get there.

Extending the county shelter's hours should be logical step toward increasing pet adoptions and reducing the need for euthanasia.

It was one idea offered Tuesday, but most of the critics, appearing before commissioners, simply aimed strong rhetoric at the so-called "culture of death'' at the shelter.

They talked about inept management, medical negligence, mislabeling of animals, poor record-keeping, and called for dismissing at least three staff members.

In response, the county said it commissioned an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the dog's death that will include, among other things, examining the department's procedures, the qualifications and training of Animal Services staff and the status of the recommendations from an April 2011 report.

It, too, came in answer to public complaints about the unnecessary deaths of animals in the shelter's care.

The new investigation, to be conducted by auditors from the Circuit Court Clerk's office, is necessary because of the clear loss of public faith in Animal Services. But the response also shows the ridiculous reach of four years of budget cuts.

During the investigation, decisions on euthanizing animals will be made by the county fire chief — Public Services Director Mike Nickerson, who already is burdened with pressing matters like the logistics of absorbing the former Spring Hill Fire Department into the county.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes talked of county government failing the animal advocates. He is right, but it goes beyond the case of Zeus.

Commissioners and county staffers have continued to make do with shrinking resources and a reliance on generous volunteers to help offset running county parks, animal services and other county functions. The face of those budget cuts can now be the image of an 8-month-old dog that appeared on T-shirts in the commission chambers Tuesday, along with the proclamation of "Never again.''

People who want better services from their county government have to be willing to pay for more than a T-shirt.

Hernando County's problem deeper than dog's death 04/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 4:12pm]
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