TAMPA — Despite assurances that things are getting better at Hillsborough County Animal Services, County Administrator Mike Merrill once again is shaking up management at the beleaguered agency.
In a memo to county commissioners this week, Merrill said he wants to hire former Temple Terrace City Manager Kim Leinbach for a senior management position at animal services. Leinbach’s duties will include communicating with animal rescue groups and other volunteers in the community, many of whom have been critical of the agency and director Ian Hallett.
The move appears to be a further reduction of Hallett’s authority.
In July, after an outbreak of a virus at the county animal shelter, Merrill removed animal control officers and investigators from Hallett’s supervision and placed them under code enforcement director Dexter Barge. At the time, Merrill said the move would free Hallett to concentrate on improving shelter conditions and boosting animal adoptions.
Hallett said bringing another manager on board to handle external communications will enable him to concentrate on reducing the number of cats and dogs put to death at the animal shelter.
“This arrangement will allow me to focus on the programs needed to stop euthanizing 10,000 animals a year,” he said.
In his memo, Merrill said policies put in place this year have addressed some of the more urgent problems at the county animal shelter, such as overcrowding and a backlog of animals awaiting spaying and neutering.
In July, the county commission appropriated $250,000 to hire more employees and renovate the kennels at the animal shelter. Merrill brought in University of Florida veterinarians to recommend improvements to hygiene at the shelter, and an expert in organizational training and development to explore employee grievances.
“Veterinary resources are at full capacity, disease management has greatly improved, and spay/neuter procedures have been streamlined to ensure expedited adoptions,” Merrill wrote in the memo. “Shelter facility improvements, both completed and underway, will enhance the productivity of processing animals for adoption, as well as reduce incidences of opportunistic diseases.”
Merrill also cited continuing problems, including shelter animals put to death inadvertently and uneven customer service.
Four animals that shouldn’t have been were euthanized at the shelter since November 2012, including a German shepherd named JoJo who was killed Oct. 8 even though he had been scheduled for adoption.
In July, a cat named Bella was euthanized 43 hours after being turned in to the shelter by her owner’s daughter. The owner learned her pet was dead when she came to claim it. A video of the cat was shared on social media.
Both deaths drew a storm of criticism.
Merrill said in his memo that the staff who euthanized JoJo were unable to explain satisfactorily how the tragic accident happened. An investigation revealed that animal service records available to employees indicated JoJo was not to be killed.
“Anybody who has witnessed euthanasia procedures at the shelter can attest to the emotional stress which surely takes its toll on staff,” Merrill wrote in the memo. “All protocols are being re-reviewed and necessary safeguards will be heightened to ensure prevention of this error.”
In an effort to head off future accidental killings, Hallett said, three vacant positions will be filled at higher pay levels for employees who handle euthanasia. The new employees will be required to have more training than is currently required.
“These employees have to euthanize animals, which is one of the most critical positions, and they don’t make much more than $10 an hour,” Hallett said.
Merrill was also highly critical in his memo of what he called “customer service deficiencies” at the shelter. The problems have continued despite “in-depth training and counseling.”
“This too is unacceptable given the priority I’ve set organizationwide on stellar customer service,” Merrill said.
The memo brought swift reaction from some animal rights activists. Art Fyvolent, who fosters pit bulls from the shelter, said the problems there won’t be fixed by adding another layer of management.
“They should add staff — the people who work with animals,” Fyvolent said. “I would bet whatever salary Kim Leinbach is going to make, they could probably hire three kennel staff, which would be a much better use of dollars than another manager.”
Amy Howland, co-founder of the animal rescue group Dogma, agreed with Fyvolent, saying Merrill will not solve the problems at the animal shelter by “throwing money at it.”
She suggested he bring back an experienced shelter manager, such as former animal service directors Bill Armstrong or Dick Bailey, to guide Hallett. Leinbach is not the answer, Howland said.
“I don’t know much about him, but if he has no sheltering experience — no experience fixing a department that has gone so far downhill — no, he’s not the right guy,” she said.