Chesterton Tribune

Crowd turns out to support fixing county animal shelter

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In what has become the most talked-about issue in Porter County government this year, the County Council and Commissioners jointly held the first meeting to openly discuss the problems plaguing the county animal shelter with members of the community.

“How are we going to fix it? That is why we are here,” said Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large.

Whitten said the purpose of the meeting was to put politics aside and get input from all stakeholders on how to proceed with shelter operations.

Nearly 100 people turned out for the standing-room only meeting. County officials heard comments from an assortment of shelter volunteers, local veterinarians, care specialists and board members.

All council members and commissioners were present with the exception of Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center.

Speaking first was County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, who openly admitted the county commissioners are solely responsible for operations and bulleted a list of problems and what his board has done to improve them.

“It is my mission to get these things going and get them done,” said Evans.

Evans said the shelter started this week to no longer accept cash for adoptions, having customers pay by credit card or check instead. This is an attempt to put the kibosh on a series of thefts seen the last three years, the most recent being $455 taken from the safe in October.

A failure to collect payments from municipalities for animal control services has also been remedied. Invoices to the towns and cities were sent out last week by county attorney Gwenn Rinkenberger. Evans said all municipalities have paid their remaining balance except for Burns Harbor ($662) and Ogden Dunes ($558).

Evans said the commissioners are currently looking at the Animal Control contracts and fees for 2012. The money doesn’t move into the shelter’s budget currently, but instead into the county’s general fund.

Evans also named projects progressing towards solutions. One of those would be to find a qualified director. Another would be to stop infections such as the two cases of parvovirus that resulted in euthanization of a few dogs. The county has sought an estimate on the cost of putting in concrete floors in the outdoor dog runs which will be easier to clean.

The commissioners are also seeking a private/public partnership to handle the daily operations of the shelter. Evans announced earlier that he is considering an agreement with Opportunity Enterprises to help clean the facility and spend time with the animals.

The potential partnership has drawn mixed reaction as some see there could be liability issues with OE’s clientele being in contact with wild or aggressive animals.

Evans told the Tribune if the deal does go through, OE will have extensive training programs to handle the animals and an OE supervisor will be present at all times.

“We’re not putting anyone in jeopardy,” he said.

Evans said the idea has its pros and cons, but he believes teaming with OE would expand volunteerism and therefore cut costs.

Needs Assessment

Although the need for a new shelter was not discussed in detail, the commissioner’s decision to authorize a needs study by the Shelter Planners of America was met with acclaim from officials and community members.

The commissioners earlier in the day approved 2-0 a $6,500 contract for the group to conduct the study under the recommendation of the new animal shelter advisory board.

Shelter Planners of America will conduct the assessment based on one hundred items of information from county input. It also plans to give recommendations for animal holding and annual capacities along with the size needed. The county will also receive a preliminary floor plan showing the layout of a new facility and the estimated costs for a new facility based on existing shelters of similar cost.

The shelter board in a letter to the commissioners commented Planners will help the county move forward with necessities such as air ventilation systems, noise control, sanitary drainage and clean kennels.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, who earlier put blame on the Commissioners for not having a plan to address changes needed when the shelter became a no-kill facility in 2008, told the Tribune he was happy to see the decision made to launch a needs study as it will be a key element in finding solutions. With the information gathered, the county can enact proper policies and then decide how to fund them sufficiently, he said.

One audience member suggested the county pursue utilizing the former 30,000 square-foot Fetlas’ building, which has been acquired by OE, as the new shelter site. Whitten said the county has the details on the building but would need to further discuss that with OE.

Public Speaks Out

Over a dozen audience members expressed their views from the floor, some very emotional about the animals and the volunteers.

Some spoke on their views on managerial approaches and said the shelter may benefit if the director ran it more like a business to handle employees.

Chesterton resident Don Plomman said he continually read about shelter conditions in the newspaper and differing opinions. He said it would be better if officials would “get out what is really going on” and that there should be a greater sense of accountability.

Members of the Independent Cat Society, President Connie Szawara and Vice-president Gale Carmona, advocated the merits of a trap/neuter/return program to keep populations stable that would cause less crowding at animal housing facilities.

Carmona said the no-kill Independent Cat Society has a yearly budget of $270,000, less than the county shelter, but has been able to care for its 250 cats by leveraging small donations. Their shelter offers proof, Carmona said, that a no-kill shelter can be run on a small budget and she believes the same is possible for the county, which has a budget of $365,000.

The shelter’s current volunteer coordinator Julie Sausman expressed her opinion on the discussion of how to define in policies what a no-kill shelter means, saying the definition is clear and there is no need to readdress it. The status has allowed 90 percent of the animals taken in to be saved.

“We just need to strive for what this community wants,” said Sausman who thanked county officials for allowing the public the chance to speak. “We felt like we had no voice and we were the only ones speaking for the animals”

A few local veterinarians said while they are no fan of having to euthanize animals, allowing adoption of sick or aggressive animals at the shelter has given veterinarians the unwanted task of euthanizing when people bring those animals to them.

Veterinarian Dr. Lisa Polazzi said this could discourage more adoptions and also added that overcrowding is an abuse to the animals.

Further comments reflected negatively on the appearance of the shelter and how residents have been treated by staff members in the past.

Cheers for Interim Director

Meanwhile, the council invited interim shelter director Jon Thomas to speak on his vision for the shelter.

Being on the job a total of nine days, Thomas has had crews disinfect and clean the kennels daily. His other priorities include making staff more respectful, growing the number of volunteers and working with the animal shelter board on accomplishing its objectives, especially on finding homes for the dogs and cats.

“Everything I’ve seen out there needs to be reviewed,” he said.

Addressing remarks to his limited experience working with animals, Thomas said he considers himself a fast learner and is confident in his ability to meet expectations. A Valparaiso native, Thomas lived in Dallas, Texas, for 25 years and worked 19 years in the insurance business.

Thomas received compliments from shelter board members as they commented the shelter was the cleanest they had ever seen when they visited on Friday.

Thomas had been working at the shelter part-time for a couple of weeks before being put in charge temporarily. He is in the running for the permanent director position.

The commissioners will most likely announce the new shelter director at their reorganization meeting in January, Evans said.

Progress Made?

Whitten at the end of the meeting said he felt better that the council had the chance to hold an open discussion with members of the public. He said he would consider the many thoughts expressed and plans to hold subsequent public meetings to continue the progress.

“We have to keep working on this or it is in danger we will go back,” said Whitten.

Many others said they believe progress has been made Tuesday. Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, said she was very impressed with the comments made and thanked everyone who spoke.

“It is very good we have met. Good will come out of it,” she said.

Carmona told the Tribune she will monitor actions to ensure the county shelter does not revert to its former deplorable conditions.

“We will be watching. There is no way (these problems) are going to happen again,” she said.


Posted 12/7/2011