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WAIF will take over animal shelter

Oak Harbor city leaders have placed what may amount to a stay of execution on many homeless dogs and cats in the city, but the mercy comes with a price.

Tuesday, Oak Harbor City Council members unanimously voted to enter into a contract with the non-profit group Whidbey Animal Improvement Foundation to run the city’s ramshackle animal shelter on the Navy’s Seaplane Base. Council members Sheilah Crider and Paul Brewer were absent from the meeting.

They also decided to turn the animal control officer into a city staff position, ending the city’s long-time agreement with a contractor who acted as both the on-call animal control officer and shelter operator.

In total, the decision will cost the city an extra $50,000 a year, plus one-time costs of $60,000.

In addition, the council passed a motion directing Police Chief Steve Almon, the supervisor for the animal control operation, to research the possibility of either purchasing or building a better animal shelter in a more convenient location.

Almon said the financial investment will bring about big changes in how pets and pet owners are treated.

“We’re talking about an aggressive licensing program,” Almon said, “and we’re talking about aggressively pursuing animal welfare.”

Previously, the city contracted with Terry Sampson to be both the animal control officer and shelter manager. The city paid him $58,000 a year, plus he got to keep fees charged for animal adoption and pet surrenders.

The problem with that arrangement was that Sampson said he did not have the time, money or ability to run a foster care program, fix up the facility, provide veterinary care or a quarantine area or even walk the dogs. He said he was forced to regularly euthanize dogs and cats; about a quarter of the animals that went in the shelter’s door received lethal injections.

In contrast, WAIF is able to run a minimal-kill program, partly because of help from volunteers. Minimal-kill means only pets with terminal diseases or dangerous personalities are euthanized; animals are never put down because of space or time limitations.

Under the new contract, the city will pay WAIF $62,500 a year to run the shelter, plus one-time costs of $40,000 to fix up the shelter and fund other fixed costs. WAIF’s budget includes two employees, one at full time and one at 80 percent; an aggressive program to increase adoptions; a spay-and-neuter program; a foster care program; community education; volunteer dog walkers and cat handlers; a feral cat spay and neuter program; a pet food bank; an aggressive licensing effort; crisis care; and a Web site.

The city will soon be advertising for an experienced animal control officer position. Almon estimated the salary at $36,000 to $41,000 with about $10,000 for benefits. The city will also have to provide a pickup truck for the officer, which will cost about $18,000.

Councilwoman Sue Karahalios told Almon to make sure the job description and official title for the animal control position is flexible enough so that person can take on other duties when not dealing with creatures.

The City Council set up an ad hoc committee about a year ago to look into animal control and shelter management. Council members and other city officials were concerned about the amount of euthanasia, the welfare of the animals and the lack of accountability in the contract with Sampson. Chief Almon, Mayor Patty Cohen, City Administrator Thom Myers, Council members Sue Karahalios, Sheilah Crider and Larry Eaton served on the committee.

Almon said the city advertised last fall, at the committee’s urging, for requests for proposals for individuals or groups to run the shelter, provide animal control, or both. The city received three proposals for shelter management, but only one for animal control. Only two proposals — from WAIF and Sampson — for shelter management qualified.

Almon said he, Cohen and Myers interviewed the candidates and unanimously chose WAIF.

Animal control, however, was a different matter. Sampson proposed to continue running the city’s animal control responsibilities — which includes picking up strays and dealing with animal problems — for $75,000 a year. Almon said that number is “substantially higher than we thought warranted the position.”

As an alternative, Almon suggested that the city hire an animal control officer as a staff person, which he said is how most cities similar to Oak Harbor handle the position.

“It makes good business sense,” Almon said.

The advantage of creating a staff position, Almon said, is that the position will have “better accountability,” the city will have more control over performance, the person will be able to work with WAIF without “conflicting goals” and the officer will be able to perform code enforcement and write tickets. As it stands now, the animal control officer has no enforcement authority, but must call a police officer to write a ticket if someone disobeys the animal code.

Lesley Mills, executive director of WAIF, agreed that a animal control officer in the city staff would help build a “more cohesive team effort” between shelter operators and the animal control officer, who will have to work together.

“We want to be able to work very effectively for the public,” she said.

Mills said she hopes WAIF will be able to take over the shelter in about 30 days or so. While WAIF staff and volunteers are very excited about the opportunity, she said they have a lot of work ahead of them. She said the group especially hopes to reach out to the Navy community to get them involved in such programs as pet foster care.

“This is a stretch for WAIF,” she said. “This is a big endeavor. We need community support now more than ever.”

Anyone interested in volunteering or donating can contact WAIF at 678-5816.

Almon said he hopes to start advertising for the animal control position next week.

“We’ve made great progress and I’m excited about it,” he said. “The direction we’re going will be a dramatic departure from what we’ve been doing.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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