Allegan County News & Union Enterprise News

Whither county animal shelter’s fate?

By Scott Sullivan
Allegan County and 501c3 nonprofit Wishbone Pet Rescue are at business loggerheads how to continue a 12-year pact both agree has been successful.
Both concede updates are needed to achieve the shared goal: a humane, financially-healthy shelter serving county humans and animals with, by nature, funds and resources that are limited. The only “side” in the end may be what works out best for all.
As stands in the current stand down, Wishbone would be out and the county in full charge of shelter operations and finances starting at year’s end.
Wishbone has secured a Tuesday, Oct. 24 town hall meeting, inviting all sides to discuss ideas working with an impartial, outside Monitor, in the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, 400 Culver St., Saugatuck, doors opening at 5:30 p.m. It will announce an Allegan site to host same in these newspapers next week.
From between-parties records as of Monday:

Sept. 25 email from county administrator Robert Sarro and executive finance director Jennifer Ludwick to Wishbone board president Joy McClendon, vice president George Stoutin and development advisor Greg Dziewit:
“We have had a chance to review your 2024 contract proposal and all operational concerns you have presented. The following items have already been addressed:
“• The County is resolving the issues with the washer/dryer. An industrial set is currently in the ordering process
“• The County is willing to resolve the issue with the dog run/fencing. Once WPRA Wishbone) provides the County with a recommended design the County will proceed to solicit quotes.
“• The County has agreed to add 1-2 cameras to the dog room area of the Shelter.
“• The County is also willing to provide additional facility related supplies (e.g., bags, cleaning solution, etc.) within reason.
“These points appeared to be creating roadblocks to productive conversations between the County and WPRA. For betterment of the partnership, the County took action to remove those roadblocks in a timely manner.
“• The current offer made by WPRA is to increase the 2024 contract payment from $81,960 to $240,000 annually and increase the escalation percentage from 3- to 5-perecent year over year. The County’s partnership with WPRA has been based on a model and shared goal to utilize the County’s resources to operate and maintain the facility and enhance the care of the animals through WPRA management, volunteerism and donations resulting in timely adoptions.
“Over time, the County has doubled its contractual payments, increased its capital investment in the facility and operations and turned over all shelter-based County revenue to WPRA, forgoing any revenue to offset facility costs to support this ongoing partnership. Together, we have increased animal adoption!
“It was mentioned WPRA now has a different organizational approach; however, the County is not in position to veer from our already-successful arrangement.
“A key cost of the WPRA proposal focuses on the organizational aspect of WPRA by adding pay and benefits toward an Executive Director and potentially other staff on the WPRA payroll. While the County is not acceptable to applying its funds to that organizational decision, we are able to assist by once again significantly increasing our resources toward the partnership:
“The County is willing to continue a contract with a first-year annual amount of $86,058. This is a 5-percent increase over the 2023 contract. The County further agrees to an escalation of 5-percent year over year for the 3-year contract term.
“The County will procure a Shelter Coordinator to run daily operations of the Shelter. The County believes this contribution of resources (nearly $100,000) will help resolve the current issues WPRA has with the stringency of governmental processes.
“This will also return both parties to the original model where the County runs the facilities and day-to-day operations and WPRA provides animal wellness, operational support and staff services.
“The County will continue to support operations by providing inmate workers and will also work to expand programming (if possible) to youth home residents.
“The County will continue to provide building operational support and maintenance.
“The County will continue to allocate all shelter-related revenue to WPRA for the wellness and care of the animals.
“The above points give heavy consideration to the fact that WPRA is not able and/or willing to completely operate the shelter independently. Through discussion and in writing the County has offered to provide use of the shelter at no cost to WPRA.
“Other County/Non-Profit partnerships operate on that ‘turn-key’ premise. We respect that may not be possible for WPRA so the County’s plan recognizes the shelter’s continued success relies heavily on collaboration and partnership.
“Hopefully, over time, other community partners can be brought into the fold including tribal and educational partners. Long term, perhaps other community funding models can be considered as well such as a community led millage. Naturally, these long-term solutions will take time,” the email ends.

The afore three Wishbone officers, with remaining board members Elaine Bosch, Scot Reynolds and Gary Workman emailed Sept. 29 to Sarro and Ludwich, copying in county commissioners Jim Storey, chair; Dean Kapenga, vice chair; Mark DeYoung,
Scott Beltman and Gale Dugan:
“We are disappointed that you have decided not to renew our agreement. Our greatest fear is that your decision will erode our joint successes, and the shelter will lose the no-kill status we have worked so hard to achieve. This is not in the best interest of the community, or the animals.
“In 2010, Allegan County asked Wishbone to manage and operate the Allegan County Animal Shelter. At that time, the Shelter was poorly funded, provided no veterinary care for suffering animals, had no adoption program, and had a high kill rate of helpless animals.
“Over the years, Wishbone
invested enormous financial and human capital in building successful adoption, foster, veterinary, low-cost spay/neuter, and feeding programs for county animals.
“Today, through our partnership, the Shelter enjoys a 93-percent save rate. That’s impressive for a county animal shelter — something that should make everyone involved in this partnership very proud.
“We can claim this success because of the generosity of our donors, volunteers and hard-working staff. These
constituents fund most of the budget required to carry out these programs.
“These programs are expensive. Over the past two years, food has increased by 30 percent, medical over 22 percent, and labor another 25 perecent. The days of running a shelter with more than 900 annual intakes, primarily
with volunteers, are gone.
“As Animal Control staff and intakes increased, so did ours. We have invested in paid staff to carry out these programs and grow our network of fosters, volunteers, and donors.
“Over the years, Wishbone has agreed to carry most of this financial burden. Our last proposal to the Count continued this commitment.
“We want to assist in a smooth transition as soon as possible. Some key topics must be addressed immediately:
“• Notifying Wishbone employees that we end on Dec. 31, 2023.
“• Hiring plans by the County for Wishbone employees, if any.
“• Terminating Wishbone’s veterinarian of record.
“• Changing the shelter’s license Operator and Veterinarian of Record.
“• Removing Wishbone assets: Medications, crates, supplies, food, surgery equipment, etc.
“• Transitioning supply agreements to the County.
“• Deciding the fate of the animals currently in the shelter.
“We thank you for the past partnership with Wishbone Pet Rescue Alliance. We look forward to your success,” the email sent four days later ends.

Last Thursday, Oct. 6, the Wishbone board emailed elected county commissioners, at whose behest Saro and Ludwick work:
“On Sept. 28, Wishbone Pet Rescue Alliance (Wishbone) was notified via a letter from Robert Sarro and Jennifer Ludwick that Allegan County will not renew its contract to manage the county shelter, ending its 14-year partnership on 12/31/2023.
“We are surprised and disappointed with this decision. We are heartbroken that Wishbone will no longer oversee the care and welfare of our county’s most deserving and vulnerable animals.
“Our successes over the past years in increasing adoptions, reducing unnecessary euthanasia, improving shelter animals’ welfare while under our care, and converting the shelter from a high-kill to its current no-kill status, is something this community is very proud of. This couldn’t have been accomplished without the support of our tireless staff, volunteers, fosters\ and generous donors.
“In the past 12 months alone, the Shelter accepted over 900 lost and unowned pets from the Allegan community. Most came in from public surrenders or from County Animal Control. These animals were either homeless, wandering lost in the streets of our community, or taken from abusive homes.
“Through County-Wishbone partnership, we collectively were able to rehome or adopt more than 90 percent of these animals. Sadly, 5 to 7 percent are euthanized due to poor health or aggressive behavior. This is the nationally-recognized animal welfare standard. The community knows our shelter is a safe, temporary space for these animals and has become accustomed to supporting our mission.
“Let us share the financial picture:
“In 2023, Wishbone’s operating expense budget was $547,219. Of this budget, the county contract contributed $81,960 (15%), animal service fees (adoption & reclaim fees) contributed just over $100,000 (18%), with the remaining $357,705 (65 %) coming from donors and grants Wishbone has secured.
“With rising costs across the board, including food (+30%), medical services & supplies (+22%) and animal-care labor (+25%), along with much-needed headcount additions, Wishbone projects the annual 2024 budget to be $693,529. This is well aligned with other animal shelters of this size.
“We do not expect fees from animal services to increase in 2024; therefore, without a greater contribution from Allegan County, we will be required to raise more than $500,000 from donors and grants.
“We believe it is unreasonable to ask donors to make this commitment without a shared financial commitment from the County. Our proposal requested the county fees increase to $240,000 per year or 34% of our overall budget.
“The County’s last proposal was an annual net increase of 2% in contract fees ($86,058), plus adding a new, county-led Coordinator role costing the county $100,000 annually (including benefits).
“The responsibilities of this new role are unclear to Wishbone, do not reduce any operating expense from Wishbone’s budget, nor provide additional animal-related services of which we are aware.
“In other words, we are concerned this represents an additional $100,000 of county expense without clearly stated benefits to the animals or the community.
“For these reasons, Wishbone could not accept this offer; therefore, the County will once again take control of animal shelter operations. We do not believe county residents will embrace this decision.
“We believe shelter operations costs will increase, euthanasias rise and donor contributions significantly decrease without Wishbone’s oversight.
“Wishbone provides 12 dedicated paid staff members and more than 100 active volunteers. Allegan County has not shared any plan for managing shelter operations or its commitment to the no-kill mission.
“County leadership has also stated that Allegan County will no longer provide cat shelter services. We do not believe the community will accept these decisions.
“Our biggest fear is the County will no longer be able to maintain the shelter’s no-kill status and cannot support the adoption process with the same level of commitment that Allegan County and Wishbone are proud of.
“We believe the county has underestimated the effort, skill, funding, challenges and dedication required to perform the services that Wishbone has for the County over the past 14 years.
“We believe our relationship with the County has deteriorated over time due largely to an overloaded system. The Shelter was designed and built as a short-term holding facility for stray dogs. Cats were not accepted and euthanasia generally occurred within days.
“Our Wishbone mission drives us to provide medical care and a temporary home for all adoptable animals until they are placed, including cats.
“We have made great strides towards achieving our mission, but recognize this has been done while operating in a facility not built to support it.
“Community support for our mission is high, however, a shelter managed contrary to Wishbone’s mission and values puts us in a position which hinders our ability to fundraise and puts our employee retention at high risk.
“Rather than abandon the Wishbone mission and have the shelter return to a higher-kill status with no support for cats, we hope the County will reconsider their decision to not renew our contract.
“We understand the limitations of this facility and hope we can work together to ease that situation while still focusing on the best outcome for the animals. We remain willing to seek out solutions which benefit all constituents.
“We urgently request that County leadership reconsider its decision and provide Wishbone with the requested resources, so we may continue our mission at the shelter to alleviate homeless pets’ pain and suffering by providing shelter and veterinary care, ultimately finding permanent, loving homes for animals in need,” the email ends.

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