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
“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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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.
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.
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