Kent terminates dog-control contract with Safe Haven

The Kent County Levy Court, at a special meeting on Tuesday, voted 5-2 to terminate the County’s dog control contract with Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary, based in Georgetown. The commissioners instructed County Administrator Mike Petit de Mange to start the process of terminating the contract with a certified letter to Safe Haven. The contract will terminate 60 days from receipt of the letter.

Safe Haven is a 19,500-square-foot no-kill animal sanctuary located on 13 acres in Georgetown.

The Kent County officials asked questions that many people statewide have been in the past few weeks, after hearing via an announcement on social media that Safe Haven would close at the end of August, then hearing a day later that they, in fact, would stay open, and then hearing that some staff and some board members were no longer part of the organization and that they were desperately seeking donations and volunteers.

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 72 hours dealing with this,” said Commissioner Eric Buckson before presenting the motion to terminate the contract. “Three months ago, we awarded the contract to Safe Haven. Then, a month or so ago, we got the indication of financial difficulty. Then, a week ago, we got notice you were closing and were going to void our contract — from reputable people, from fans of yours, from donors. Then, a day later, we hear, ‘No, no — that’s a mistake. We are alive.’ Well, that’s a big problem.”

He went on to say that delaying the decision would only hurt Safe Haven and suggested taking a “time out” is just what they need to be able to come back “bigger than ever.”

“Your mission statement is noble — I get it. Your employees are champs. I’m a fan. I take no pleasure in grilling you. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that you have a problem and the problem is your business model. It doesn’t work. The numbers don’t lie.”

“This is an emergency, gentlemen,” he continued. He then reprimanded the audience for clapping when he made his motion to terminate the dog-control contract. “Don’t applaud. This is not a good situation. Dogs are at stake.”

David Hughes, who spoke for Safe Haven, along with board member Rita Hughes and board president Lois Fargo, started the meeting by saying that the organization is able to sustain itself based on their numbers so far for the year. David Hughes said they had ramped up their adoptions and transfers to be able to control the number of dogs coming from animal control. He explained that they had a “net reduction of 75 dogs” for the first six months of the year and currently have 170 dogs at the shelter and at kennels in Kent and Sussex counties.

All of the nearly 90 cats were reportedly removed from the shelter over last weekend, without the authorization of the Safe Haven board — more than a dozen of them transferred to fostering group Josie’s Place Cat Rescue, which confirmed this week that the remaining Safe Haven cats were safe but did not offer details of their location.

Commissioner Bradley Eaby asked the Hugheses on Tuesday what a transfer was.

“It’s where we make an agreement with another shelter. We have taken some to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, to shelters that can take dogs of ours that meet the criteria for adoption.”

Hughes also said they are getting help from local shelters and from national no-kill shelters to take a certain amount of dogs per month to help with the shelter population and are researching “super adoptions” — festival-style events that aim to adopt out many pets at one time.

After being asked by Commissioner Terry Pepper if pit bulls were a problem for Safe Haven, Rita Hughes said, “80 to 90 percent of the dogs are pit bulls or pit bull mixes” and that part of their issue was the “bad press” pit bulls get as not being family dogs or being dangerous. She said that was not specifically a Safe Haven problem, rather it was a problem all over the state and nationally.

Information sought on finances, staff levels

David Hughes said one of their biggest problems that they were trying to address was reining in medical expenses and bringing dogs that have been boarded at other kennels back to Safe Haven because of the expense — two issues Court Administrator Petit de Mange asked them about.

“Your proposal said vet services would cost $125,000, and the estimated monthly costs for vet services is less than $5,000,” said Petit de Mange, looking at a list of monthly expenses. “How are you going to cover the costs of inoculations spending only $5,000 on medical? It would appear that would cost a whole lot more. I don’t think that cost is reflected in here.”

David Hughes said that was the number that came from the invoices from their per diem vet. Rita Hughes added, “No, it doesn’t reflect that. It needs to be reflected once we get the unpaid bills sheet to you. That’s the pay for the per diem vet. We are paying costs on a cash basis until we can get a lot of this under control.”

Some in the audience at the July 30 meeting scoffed at that notion. Several times they either clapped at the frank questions asked by the commissioners or questioned the answers given by Safe Haven representatives. And still, there were others who shushed those people and said out loud that they wished the people talking would stop and listen.

“It’s about $15 to $35 per day per dog,” continued Petit de Mange. “It should be reflected in here. I just don’t see it. Many shelters [represented] in this room called it ‘an unfunded mandate’ when it was discussed by the animal welfare task force. I am just not having any comfort level with this.”

“Just so you know, I am little uncomfortable with it, as well,” said Rita Hughes. “We are new at this. We have just been at it a little over a year.”

Eaby questioned the finances, as well. “Frankly, looking at it, I find it hard to believe you can generate any money, let alone break even. It looks like you are going to continue to go in the hole.”

David Hughes said excessive medical costs, in excess of $250,000 in the first year of Safe Haven’s operation, were identified as a “major mistake that was made.” He said taking control of that, rationalizing excessive payments for care, having a retired veterinarian working as a vet tech and pulling all the dogs out of the outside kennels would help them get a hold of their expenses.

“If you needed the outside kennels in the past, why would you not need them in the future?” asked Eaby.

“Our adoptions are continuing to grow,” said Hughes.

Board President P. Brooks Banta questioned why outstanding debt wasn’t on the expenses sheet. David Hughes said they were negotiating with their creditors for past-due balances.

“What if the negotiations fail? They don’t always go well, and I don’t foresee a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Banta.

He then said that the commissioners were “responsible to the 168,000 people in Kent County. If we are not good stewards of their money, we could be in serious trouble.”

Commissioner Glen Howell asked why the $148,000 that Safe Haven owes on their mortgage was not reflected as a monthly expense.

Petit de Mange stated that the dog-control contract with Kent County was for $868,972 for the year. He said their proposal had reflected $113,772 for vehicle costs, fuel maintenance and other related costs.

“If you divide that by 12, around $9,000 per month should be going toward that cost. I don’t see any fuel costs on here, except for a $100 fee to Hertrick. And vet care — you had $125,000 earmarked. Divided by 12 months, that would be about $10,000 a month. I don’t see that on here listed as a monthly charge. Some of those basic operating costs are not jumping out at me on this list. Food, medical supplies, custodian and janitorial services... Are they listed somewhere?”

Hughes said they spent about $1,000 per month on fuel and hadn’t yet bought their second vehicle.

“That money is not accounted for and being spent on other things apparently?” concluded Petit de Mange.

“Really, this is a cash flow sheet,” said Eaby. “You don’t have a balance sheet, which is what President Banta was getting at. Even at a net of $4,700 a month, there is no accounts-payable shown. And it is a significant amount. Even if you took in $54,000 a year, that wouldn’t even pay half of [the outstanding debt], right?”

He then asked if they could get an accounts-payable list. David Hughes said they could provide it. Hughes added that they were expecting a $50,000 grant that would pay off some of their debt and, later in the meeting, he said they would solicit donations from past supporters.

Fargo was quiet for much of the meeting but added that they had received grants in the past and would be actively writing applications for them again and would be doing a better job of “nurturing our supporters.”

Pepper then changed directions and asked Hughes about their number of employees, as there had been reports that several were laid off for financial reasons and then several left or were asked to leave.

“How many employees do you have?” said Pepper.

David Hughes said they had nine under the dog control program — eight, plus one supervisor.

As for the separate sanctuary operations, he said, “I believe there is six. That sounds about right.”

“How many did you have a month ago?” asked Pepper.

Rita Hughes said that, two weeks ago, some staff had been terminated and, over this past weekend, some staff had been fired by Safe Haven’s interim executive director, Cindy Woods.

“Five or six were let go initially, and seven went recently, including our interim executive director and the vet tech,” she said. Woods had been hired to replace Anne Gryczon after she left Safe Haven amid reports of financial issues and alleged neglect of some Safe Haven animals that had taken place during her time there.

“Who is there on a daily basis to ensure safe operation of the facility?” continued Pepper.

“Right now, our interim director is Bob Burkowitz, who is a great business manager,” she answered, to “whoas” from some the audience.

When asked if Burkowitz was paid or a volunteer, David Hughes said he was paid.

“Let me ask this another way,” said Pepper. “Tomorrow morning, how many people are going to show up for work?”

“Four,” said Hughes, adding that they had just hired a fifth employee for the night shift.

Without contract, Safe Haven could be forced to shut its doors

The board then switched gears again.

Commissioner Jody Sweeney asked Safe Haven’s representatives where they would be financially without the Kent County dog-control contract.

“Personally, I believe we would have to shut our doors,” replied Rita Hughes. She then mentioned some financial gifts that they had received in the past few days but concluded by saying, “If you chose to step away, we probably wouldn’t be viable.”

“If you never had the contract, where would you be?” pressed Sweeney.

Hughes then said that they were a different board and that the previous board “had money coming in that wasn’t allocated correctly.”

“What would you do if you were in our position?” continued Sweeney.

“I think I would think about how we have performed in the past,” said Hughes. “We have performed very well for Kent County, and I see us doing that. I see volunteers willing to come out, scoop poop and donate money. It’s been amazing.”

Banta expressed disdain for Hughes’ answer.

“If the organization does fail, it is because of mismanagement, not because of this body. That was the implication if we didn’t extend the contract. We are in no way going to be intimated by anybody’s comments. Somebody’s been misappropriating funds or spending funds unwisely. I would think you would not have to hinge everything on what this body does or does not do.”

Hughes apologized, saying she hadn’t meant it like that and was only trying to “make an answer to a question. The dogs still have to be treated, whether you keep us or not.”

They then were asked if their no-kill philosophy really fit with having a dog control contract.

The Human Society of the United States recommends that shelters hold found animals for at least five days, including a Saturday, to better ensure that owners have a chance to claim lost pets before they’re euthanized, but many shelters that don’t have a no-kill mission will euthanize a found animal after 72 hours or even less.

Hughes said that was a tough question but that she believed the no-kill philosophy could be compatible with providing dog-control services.

In the end, Commissioners Allan F. Angel and Sweeney voted “no” to terminating the contract. Angel said he was confident the dogs were being taken care of and felt the new Safe Haven board should be given a chance.

While none of the commissioners expressed that it was an easy decision, Howell summed the general mood of the meeting with his comments.

“Safe Haven has managed itself more from sentiment than from fiscal responsibility.” He said the decision to terminate the contract “wasn’t eternal” and they could come before the board again in the future to bid for the county’s dog-control services.

The commissioners voted 5-2 to terminate the contract.

Public sentiment mixed, fate of dogs uncertain

Audience reactions to the vote to terminate the contract were mixed.

“I know you said this is about money,” said Kate Hungerford. “Thank you for your decision, but this is about the animals, and they are not being taken care of.”

Speaking directly to Fargo and the Hugheses, she said, “Those volunteers that are scooping poop are the same people that you have bad-mouthed for 10 years.”

Ricky Sheehorn of Hartly said to the board, “Shame on you” and asked if the previous vendor had to show their business plan or financial documents. “Shame on you,” he repeated.

Buckson responded, inviting Sheehorn to his office to look at the financial information. “Until then, I’m not accepting your criticism. Got it?”

Todd Kline of Dagsboro said he has 47 Safe Haven dogs at a kennel he owns and hasn’t been paid in two months. “That’s not even the issue. What am I supposed to do with these dogs?” he asked. He said about 45 of them were pit bulls or pit bull mixes.

“These are Kent County animals, dog-control animals. I have been feeding them...”

Buckson said they would get an answer for him and said the goal is that there will be some type of national super adoption that will allow him to give them back to Safe Haven to be adopted out. “But it is like shoveling snow while it is still coming down...” Later, Buckson told Kline, “We have a moral obligation for the situation of those dogs being there long-term,” and said they would try to find an answer.