Cadillac Mayor Bill Barnett Speaks Out About the Wexford County Animal Shelter

With the Wexford County Board of Commissioners not addressing several issues, the future of the Wexford County Animal Shelter seems to be in limbo. The BOC hasn’t publicly addressed the Request for Proposals submitted by four non-profits to run the shelter, although off the record an anonymous source says that one of the BOC members told her they have been rejected. Additionally, the future funding of the shelter has also not been addressed and whether the county will seek another millage – or if they have plans on what to do if that millage is not passed. Since the BOC does have a say in the financial matters of the shelter, it would seem wise to address these issues especially since there will be a vote on their next budget coming up at the beginning of December.

The county’s shelter is actually owned by the City of Cadillac and leased to the County for $1 a year. The city taxpayers receive the services of the county and pay a large amount of their taxes for their county services, which means the City Government has an obligation to its own taxpayers to make sure the shelter is run in an ethical and legal manner as well as being financially sound with transparency and accountability.

Pet Friends Magazine contacted Cadillac City Mayor Bill Barnett about the current state of affairs at the Wexford County Animal Control Department & Shelter and his answers to some important questions are below:

1. How do you feel about the progress (or lack of) being made at the county’s animal shelter regarding the care of the animals and the management of the shelter? 

Before sustained progress can be accomplished, the administrators of the shelter are going to first have to acknowledge that there was a serious history of financial and animal care mismanagement. Until they do so a long-term improvement will never occur. The volunteers that are reducing the number of euthanized pets should be applauded but one must seriously question why they weren’t brought in sooner over the past 20 years while the disturbing kill rates existed. The Sheriff’s supporters initially asked me to hold off on making any judgment of the shelter management until the independent investigation was concluded. It was obvious then and still is that the shelter was abused for funding purposes and that short-cuts were made that were not in the animals best interests. These critics have been silenced. This is a community tragedy at the highest level. 

We now know from the state’s initial findings that severe mismanagement existed and that the administrators were disengaged from proper shelter management policies and oversight. At this point it is clear that the shelter was in violation of the state’s rules and recently a significant fine was handed down to send a corrective message for the violations. I expect much more to be uncovered when the investigations are completed and the former employee’s court case finally proceeds with discovery and hopefully a public trial so that answers can be finally provided. So far, the Sheriff’s silent treatment is not helping solve anything. He is an expert Sheriff with many years experience and can do much better than this. He needs to meet with the citizens that have rallied in support of ending these cruel conditions and work this out as an elected official should. It is astounding that he has turned his back on the taxpayers and has ignored working toward a solution for the animals of Wexford County. 

It is quite despicable that animal control millage funds were misused for years and that so many animals never had the chance that the taxpayers paid for. Still monies improperly removed from the millage fund have not been paid back to the millage fund. How do the Sheriff and the majority of the commissioners get away with this? The fund will soon be running dry as the public appropriately voted down the millage for the first time in recent memory as a symbol of disappointment and frustration with the Sheriff’s poor handling of this matter. Because of the failed millage, and no plans to present a new millage at the county level, the shelter is on a certain course to close down. I am sure the county’s goal at this point is to allow the millage money to run out and to allow the shelter to close. This is a lazy approach and to me, a cop-out. I know not all of the commissioners support this failed plan. 

Although the short-term improvements have been nice to see, the history of the inhumane management leads me to believe that this will be short-lived unless public confidence is restored and countywide confidence reappears. The county needs to accept and follow the advisory committee’s initial recommendations that are full of common sense and will require some hard work. The county board also needs to immediately get moving on another county millage request accompanied by separation of the shelter from the Sheriff’s failed administrative practices. This is a tall order based on the slow and obstructive response demonstrated so far. 

2. If the county doesn’t resolve the problems with the animal shelter to the city’s satisfaction, including accepting a bid from a non-profit to run the shelter, is it possible that the city may cancel the county’s lease on the building and offer it to someone else? Is that option on the table? 

I cannot speak for our City Council or city staff but can advise that as far as I am concerned, all options are on the table. The city already pays 25% of all county taxes and our fair share of tax dollars is built right into the animal control millage fund already. I worry that the millage fund will run out and the county will walk away from their responsibility, leaving the city holding the bag. I would like the county to turn over the shelter management to a non-profit that would be provided monies through a county-wide funding source. The future of the shelter cannot rely on city residents alone for funding. We already subsidize the township area’s road patrol and pay way over our 25% contribution for dispatch as well. 

The county is obviously trying to get away from the landfill, recycling center, the WEX, the MSU Extension Office and now the shelter. It is a clear and troubling trend which if continued, will leave the county residents under-served and with a lower quality of life. This trend is probably happening so that the county can afford to build a new jail by issuing bonds and without going to the voters for approval. One needs to look no further than the Wexford County Jail to determine the level of failure going on at the county level over the past 20 years. With that said, I doubt the city will cancel the county’s lease unless the county embraces the initial changes being proposed by their own advisory committee, which do include a non-profit taking over the shelter. 

3. Has the lease on the building been paid by the county in the past five years and is it current? 

To my knowledge, the lease fee of $1 a year has never been paid as it is only a symbolic fee. It does, however, represent the gift that the city gave to the county in the 1990’s when the county asked to take over what once was the city’s shelter. So no, they are not technically current but no plans are in place to evict them at this time. My guess is that the city is not going to give the county any reason to make it easier to get out of the animal control business when it is a county-wide responsibility and not the responsibility of any one township, village or city in Wexford County. 

4. Did the city originally handle the animal control duties? Is that why the shelter was specifically built? What year were the animal control duties handed off to the county and was their a reason? 

Yes. I believe in the 1960’s until the early 1990’s, that the city had a dog catcher and a pound. The pound is the building which is the shelter now. The county had put a committee together in the early 1990’s and organized a county millage that passed which led to the current operation being run on a reflective county-wide basis. The county was still not real good at helping the city when “cat houses” were discovered which led to many city officers becoming quite proficient in removing the large number of cats that overloaded hoarder’s homes in large numbers. Our staff asked for help in these situations but it was difficult to receive the service when the occasional cat house was discovered. The city staff used to joke that you needed a bear or an elephant on the loose to get them to come into the city and help. 

5. What do you feel that the county’s obligations are to the citizens of Cadillac in so much as serving the needs of the city’s residents animal control services? Do you feel the city residents are being served well by the county? 

This county should be providing the service we pay for. The city is contributing 25% of the animal control millage funds and should receive that portion. Monies should not be misappropriated away from animal control and humane practices should be employed. Heart sticking may be humane, but not preferred from the state’s viewpoint, but I think this practice was ongoing and must not occur ever again in Wexford County. The reports do not indicate either way which lead me to believe the issue is being covered up and not being dealt with directly. The citizens of the city also desire a far lower rate of euthanized animals and a shelter that embraces the initial recommendations of the county’s Animal Control Advisory Committee’s 10 point plan. The city is not being well served for the reasons stated above. The lack of communication as to what is and has been going on is atrocious and leaves city residents in the dark. I think many residents would help if the problems would first be acknowledged and addressed by the leadership for the county. 

6. What suggestions to you have to give to the county about their current problems with the animal shelter? 

I have listed the suggestions I have above and do truly wish that the county would stop running from this problem and embrace a reasonable solution to the incredible dark history we have had occurring in our own back yard. The citizen committee and the citizens that have stepped forward at the risk of being shot down have been nothing short of remarkable and deserve the highest praise and appreciation. 

7. What is the your vision for the future of the shelter? 

I would adopt the plans that are forthcoming from the advisory committee. They are fine tuning a 10 point plan which would include removing the current oversight authority and turning the shelter over to a non-profit with more transparent and animal-friendly operations. 

8. Any additional comments? 

I would just like to thank everyone who has gotten involved, spoken up, attended meetings, written letters or just followed this issue as it has unfolded and will continue to come to light. This problem is just not going to go away thanks to the efforts of so many concerned citizens. Some of the history of the shelter can be reviewed at http://www.cadillacflashlight.com and through many of the Pet Friends Magazine articles and their archives. Jennifer deserves a lot of credit and special thanks for her work in bringing to light these hard facts and figures through her freedom of information requests and her hard work and journalistic research.

 

The 10-point plan that the Mayor was referring to came out of the Animal Control Advisory Committee meetings where they isolated some critical areas that they thought would be important as they worked towards a shelter solution and possibility of a millage down the road to support it. Although this is a rough draft and not a finished product submitted to the BOC, it outlines a path for the county to be on so they can be better stewards of taxpayer money and better caretakers of the animals in their shelter.

1) New but experienced management for the Animal Welfare part of the shelter.

Animal Control (currently the Sheriff’s Department) would be responsible for retrieval of animals and enforcement of laws. They would eventually relocate to the Sheriff’s office, while utilizing a quarantine area at the shelter, yet to be determined/created. Animal Welfare would be handled by a 501c3 organization experienced in shelter management. For example, of the 4 respondents to the RFP, 3 have past experience running a shelter. Critical because part of running a shelter as a 501c3 requires business management experience, experience with financial requirements, and networking.

2) Transparency 

Website with critical documentation. i.e. current Financials, updated Records, Programs, Policies, and current information on the budgetary needs and use of the funds available. There are too many different places to get this kind of information. This is necessary for public trust and when asking for additional/ or renewal of millages.

3) An Oversight Committee

Five to seven members. Community involvement, City Council, at least 2 Board of Commissioners and the Sheriff or Under Sheriff is possible.

4) Expansion of the Shelter

It has become obvious that the shelter is too small for the current intake of animals. It is important that we address the issue of quarantine areas, animal control holds and additional space necessary. This will better allow us to lower our euthanasia numbers, allow for quarantine of animals and better presentation for adoptions.

5) Training

Animal Welfare is a PR position, while Animal Control is more of a duty driven position. (1919 Dog Law) It is imperative that when we choose a group for shelter management (Animal Welfare), we guide them as to how we would like the shelter represented. This will be a County appointed contractor, therefore we want the best representation possible for the county. There should be a “zero tolerance policy” for actions that are not in the best interest of Wexford County. This can be achieved through an Oversight Committee.

6) Animal Welfare Millage

This millage would be used for shelter improvements and general operation. Any excess monies from Animal Control should be forwarded to shelter operations/Animal Welfare. This will help to ensure that the Animal Welfare will be viable. The ultimate goal is to take Wexford County Operations out of the Animal Welfare business and make shelter operations a standalone business. The Animal Control would continue to work through the Sheriff’s Department.

7) Reduction of Costs

The shelter currently uses trustees and community service personnel. We would recommend allowing an alternative transport of community service personnel. At this time, the budget shows a cost of $19,000 for transportation of this group of workers. This includes drive time, vehicle usage, wages of Sheriff deputies for the time spent, and many other costs. Other shelters have programs where workers are signed out on a shelter managers personal recognizance. This might be a possibility.

Expand collaborations – It is important to allow for Wexford County to network with other shelters and existing organizations for pet transfers, fundraisers, and events.

9) Quarantine Area

At present, there is no quarantine area. We believe there is sufficient room to add on cages/remodel the current shelter particularly in the back of the shelter, and that monies could be obtained through fundraising.

10) Clear Budget

It is imperative that we have a determined figure as to the monies available to embark on this venture. How much of the current millage is to be spent on Animal Control and how much is available for Animal Welfare. This is very important to the planning of the future of the shelter and positioning of a possible millage request.

 

If you agree with this 10-point plan and would like the county to take these ideas under consideration, you can email the county administrator with your support at this address: administration@wexfordcounty.org and asked that your letter be passed along to the BOC.

 

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