Lake County commissioners unanimously agreed Tuesday to transfer operations of their Animal Services division to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
A formal agreement between Sheriff Gary Borders and the county will be brought forward at an upcoming commission meeting for final approval. Commissioners said they had confidence the sheriff could run the shelter efficiently, while also focusing on the reduction of euthanization rates.
Borders said the first thing he will focus on is hiring an animal services director and transferring the 26 employees with animal services to the sheriff’s office. The ne ed to hire an Animal Services director is paramount for the success of the operation, according to the sheriff.
Borders also said working in partnership with rescue groups and volunteers and implementing spay and neutering programs will be crucial for the animal shelter.
“We would like to see a mobile spay neutering program in the county,” he said. “We have a lot of citizens that are willing to step up to volunteer to host fundraisers.”
Lake will become the eighth county in Florida to have the sheriff’s office oversee animal services. Brevard County plans to hand over its animal services to the sheriff by Oct. 1, while Bradford, Dixie, Hendry, Martin, Polk, Putnam and Sarasota counties already have such arrangements in place.
The proposal comes after the head of the Animal Services division announced her resignation in March, citing a tight budget and public pressure over the department’s euthanization rate. Cyndi Nason was the second director of Animal Services to resign within the past year.
Nason and Marjorie Boyd both resigned amid pressure from animal activists who claim the shelter was putting down too many animals.
Before Nason took the position last May, two internal audits — one focused on the shelter’s record keeping and the other on pet licensing laws — cited at least 45 areas for improvements.
But the public criticism is only a partial reason for the resignations, county officials said, pointing to funding issues that kept the county from hiring a field supervisor and rescue coordinator to help take the pressure off the director. County commissioners agreed in a meeting on March 11 to delay funding those positions until Oct. 1.
Borders said filling the rescue coordinator position is paramount.
“It is our goal to utilize the position of the rescue coordinator to assist in the reduction of the animal shelter population,” he said. “The rescue coordinator would immediately begin to work with staff and rescue groups for the development of guidelines for qualifying and approving pet rescues.”
That position could be filled without increasing the budget by using inmate labor for many tasks currently done by Animal Service employees, Borders said.
“The utilization of inmate labor allows us to restructure existing staff to carry out other essential job functions,” he said. “We believe inmates at the shelter doing the cleaning and walking the dogs can benefit not only the shelter but the inmates.”
Borders said he would not be asking for additional funding to run the shelter and would use the current funding provided to animal services, which is about $1.4 million.
One of Borders’ major concerns at the shelter is the state of the building and lack of proper ventilation.
“Immediate discussions should begin with county facilities to develop a plan for structural improvements,” he said, citing the need for construction of additional outside holding kennels to reduce the risk of diseased animals entering the shelter.
Brian Sheahan, director of Animal Services, said proper ventilation is a constant issue in the shelter, but funding to fix the problem is in the six figures.
“There needs to be an engineering approach,” he said.
Commissioner Welton Cadwell said he was optimistic the sheriff could do a good job.
“I know where his heart is when it comes to animals,” he said. “I know he will build the foundation in that department as he has in other departments.”
Commisioner Sean Parks also spoke in support of the sheriff, highlighting the importance of implementing spay and neutering programs.
“Every day, 10,000 humans are born and 70,000 puppies and kittens,” he said. “That is a number we can’t keep up with unless we put spay and neutering programs at the forefront. I feel very confident that you are going to address that.”
Commissioner Leslie Campione, who proposed the idea of the sheriff taking over animal services, also was enthusiastic.
However, she said if a spay and neutering mobile clinic was put in place, it is equally important to not step on the toes of the veterinarians that are working closely with the shelter to perform those services.
“I think it is important reaching the people not getting it done,” she said of those in the community who may not go to a veterinarian for spay or neutering services. “If we get that done, we address the huge part of this vicious cycle.”
Further, Campione suggested the sheriff set targets regarding euthanization rates.
In response after the meeting, Borders said his ultimate goal is to be able to adopt out every animal.
“It is a hard goal to reach,” he said, adding that working with rescues and the community will help as well as the hiring of a rescue coordinator.
Sheahan said euthanizations have been reduced. Euthanization rates for dogs from October-May of this year were at 19 percent, compared with 22 percent the prior year.
Rescue groups Tuesday praised the commission’s decision.
“The rescue coordinator position is the immediate solution to help animals in the shelter now,” said Linda Coletta, president of Houndhaven. “Spay and neutering programs are a long-term solution.”
Doreen Barker, president of the South Lake Animal League, echoed similar comments, stating the recent management of Animal Services has “steadily made progress in the right direction.”
“Sheriff Borders and his team will continue to build on that progress,” she said.
Borders said it is important to note the good, hardworking employees at the shelter.
“We will start seeing improvements,” he said. “We are looking forward to stepping in and being a resource for the county.”