New Port Richey animal control torn by conflicting missions

Conflicting missions throw the program, now under police purview, into turmoil.
Animal control officer Jeff McReynolds seizes a dog in New Port Richey. The city's program, under police direction, uses trained volunteers to respond to complaints and care for the animals. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Animal control officer Jeff McReynolds seizes a dog in New Port Richey. The city's program, under police direction, uses trained volunteers to respond to complaints and care for the animals.DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published March 2 2013
Updated March 2 2013

NEW PORT RICHEY — The pit bull was supposed to be put down.

Angel was one of two dogs that mauled a cat to death and attacked a man on the street back in October. Her companion, Sky, was shot and killed while charging at New Port Richey police Officer Greg Williams. Aside from her aggression, Angel had a baseball-sized tumor on her leg. "I don't see any way we can in good conscience adopt it out," Williams told the Times a few days after the attack.

But Sharon McReynolds, head of the city's new volunteer-run animal control unit, saw a sweetness in Angel. She authorized a surgery to remove the tumor and kept the dog at her home and Main Street medical office, Advanced Healthcare Alternatives.

Police Chief James Steffens, whose department oversees the animal control unit, was stunned when the city got the $1,400 bill for the dog's medical care.

"Please understand that I did not authorize the treatment of the Pit Bull with the tumor and had actually instructed that it was either to be euthanized or sent to a Rescue without our ties to it any longer," Steffens wrote in a Feb. 11 email to interim City Manager Susan Dillinger. "Then I find out later that not only did the surgery get put into action, but that we now will end up with the bill despite their efforts for a private/public fundraiser on a Facebook page tied to our program that we did not know anything about or authorize.

"Am I wrong to have any issues with this latest example of what has been going on?" Steffens asked.

The city is five months into its experimental approach to animal control — using trained volunteers to respond to complaints and care for the animals, under the Police Department's watch — and the fault lines have already appeared.

Steffens and McReynolds see different missions for the unit: Steffens is focused on responding to animal complaints, while McReynolds is passionate about rehabilitating every animal. Then there are the questions of logistics and accountability when taxpayer dollars and unpaid volunteers become entwined. And in some instances, the conduct of the volunteers themselves has come into question.

Steffens, who will step down later this month as police chief to take a job at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, said he wants the unit to succeed. But he has concerns about the unit's spending and the long duration of dog stays at the city's borrowed kennels, which have been at full capacity for weeks. On top of that, one of the unit's animal control officers quit last week, and the other one temporarily lost his clearance to drive a city vehicle.

"As far as I'm concerned the unit is on hold," Steffens told the Times on Friday. "I just don't see how we can go on at this point until we get some of these questions answered."

Double vision

New Port Richey decided last year to part ways with Pasco County Animal Services and create its own animal control program. A group of volunteers, led by McReynolds, stepped up to offer their services. McReynolds' husband, Jeff, received training to serve as an animal control officer, and others helped clean and feed the animals.

But from the beginning, there's been a debate over the mission of the program.

"We are not running a 'shelter' and an 'adoption' center," Steffens wrote in a Jan. 23 email. "We are an Animal Protection Unit," designed to investigate complaints of animal neglect or cruelty, and seize abandoned or dangerous animals.

Sharon McReynolds has a broader vision for a "no-kill" program that makes every effort to rehabilitate animals. After the SPCA determined Angel the pit bull was too aggressive, for instance, McReynolds said she found another consultant who saw differently, and she moved forward with the dog's rehabilitation. The dog, renamed Keona, has since been taken in by a pit bull rescue group.

"I'm proud of the fact that we have saved so many dogs, rehabilitated them, and now they are with wonderful families and are with rescues who can take care of them," McReynolds said.

The diverging philosophies remain a source of tension, though.

Beth Robbins joined the unit in January as a volunteer animal control officer. Everyone was impressed with her credentials — she previously worked as an animal control officer in Polk County and a police officer in Miami Beach — and she admired the program's intentions.

She resigned last week from the New Port Richey unit.

She watched as Bones, a dog diagnosed with an auto immune disease, deteriorated in the city kennels. "He dramatically lost weight and had become emaciated, eye infections, bloody diarrhea and depressed," Robbins wrote Thursday in an email to city officials.

Sharon McReynolds tried various remedies, but the dog didn't improve. Robbins said she suggested "that he should be humanely euthanized to end his clearly evident suffering. No one listened!" Instead, she said, McReynolds returned the dog to the woman who originally surrendered him.

Robbins' email also described a chihuahua named Rosie who is "very elderly, sickly and spins in circles. … She shivers constantly and sleeps most of the time. (McReynolds) continues to allow Rosie's suffering to continue because she states the Unit's mission is 'NO KILL'!"

"The more I saw when it came to the unit's operations, the more I felt I couldn't be a part of it," Robbins told the Times.

Who spends what?

The hybrid structure of the program also creates friction points.

The trained volunteers handle the day-to-day operations of the animal control program, but they are supervised by city employees and need access to city resources. As a result:

• Volunteers "are having to pay out of their personal funds for the animals" when the vet bills pile up and city reimbursements haven't come through, Dillinger wrote in a Feb. 8 email. "This is not right."

• A clerk at the Police Department was assigned to make weekly trips to Sam's Club to buy dog food, so the volunteers wouldn't incur the cost.

• Police officers who handle emergency calls, such as bomb threats at elementary schools, must also find time for animal control errands, like a trip to Bartow to pick up a multi-cage animal transport unit.

And it's unclear how much money — ultimately, taxpayer money — the volunteers can spend without city approval.

In her Feb. 8 email, Dillinger told Steffens to remove the requirement for pre-approval of vet bills. "It's time we started trusting our volunteers who are providing this service for us," Dillinger wrote.

But Steffens balked when he received the $3,138 tab, which included the $1,400 to remove the tumor on the pit bull he said should have been euthanized. (McReynolds said she later repaid the city for the pit bull's surgery, using donations raised by the volunteers.)

"I strongly support the Animal Control Program," Steffens wrote in a Feb. 11 email to Dillinger, "but I also believe neutral eyes would view the alleged actions of parties involved as unacceptable."

McReynolds said she has never received any indication from Steffens that she needed authorization to spend funds for vet care.

"When we started this I was told by the chief that he would take care of getting up and running, and I would take care of running it once we started," she said. "So that's what I did. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. I guess he thinks otherwise."

Clearing the air

Robbins, the volunteer who quit last week, raised other concerns about the professionalism of the unit.

She said volunteer animal control officer Jeff McReynolds, who drives a marked city vehicle, backed into a parked motorcycle in January, then failed to report it. Robbins also said Jeff McReynolds takes medication that may impair his ability to drive and perform his duties.

Weeks after the incident, Jeff McReynolds filed a written statement about hitting the motorcycle, and said he didn't report it because there was no damage to either vehicle. In an interview Friday, Sharon McReynolds said her husband only takes medication at night, and it does not affect his driving or daytime duties.

"Quite frankly, that's a slanderous accusation," Sharon McReynolds said.

Still, Jeff McReynolds is not cleared to drive a city vehicle until officials look into the matter, Steffens said.

Robbins also told officials that the couple keeps recovered dogs at their home and Sharon McReynolds' office.

Dillinger said communication between both sides has been poor and she plans to call a meeting to clear the air. All sides agree that the animal control program needs to be moved out from under the Police Department's purview — though where it should go remains unclear. Dillinger said she was concerned that Steffens' orders were not being followed, but she also said the feedback from the public has been excellent.

"We need to find a way to work together to make sure we have the best possible program for our residents," Dillinger said.