Humane Society ultimatum puts city in bind searching for alternative animal shelter services
FORT PIERCE – City leaders are now scrambling to seek alternative animal shelter services by the end of October due to an August demand by the Human Society of St. Lucie County that city, county and Port St. Lucie officials refused to meet.
Code Compliance Manager Peggy Arraiz told the City Commission Aug. 5 that months-long negotiations between HSSLC and the three municipalities that co-fund the private, non-profit organization had come to a stalemate. The three jurisdictions had offered to extend the Humane Society’s contract set to expire Sept. 30 by three additional months to give its officials time to provide them copies of an operational review report on its operations drafted by the Best Friends pet rescue and advocacy organization, as well as copies of its projected budget and updated business plan. In a July 28 letter, the Humane Society refused to meet those conditions and also demanded a 3 percent increase in funding during the extension period. The organization had previously requested raising its current $550,000 in annual funding to $1.2 million during the negotiations.
“They indicated that the Best Friends report would stay confidential, and they would not share the results with the jurisdictions,” she explained as members of the public began to murmur loudly in the gallery. “They stated that our request for a budget and a business plan was untimely and that if we did not come to a meeting or an agreement in August, that they would not seek to renew their contracts with each jurisdiction. They also indicated very clearly that if we did not come to an agreement for an extension, to make plans for the animals commencing Oct. 1. The three jurisdictions did get together immediately following this, and we did not agree to a meeting in August.”
Ms. Arraiz then proceeded to detail what she describes as the “pretty dire” economic situation of the Humane Society.
“They have shown a steady decline in revenue,” she said. “Fundraising since January 2019 was $103.73. The income in January from services was $13,270.99. My most recent financial was June for services of $5,800. The July financials did just come in today and they dropped even more, under $5,000. On July 14, the Humane Society posed on their Facebook page and on their website a plea to the public for donations, stating the end of the road may well be here.”
Officials from each of the municipalities met shortly afterward that news to begin formulating a few “what if” scenarios to prepare for the worst. Plan A would address an emergency response if the Humane Society shut its doors immediately. In that case, the jurisdictions would request assistance from the Florida State Animal Response Coalition for immediate assessment and relocation of the animals, as well as contract for the services of a certified animal behaviorist. Plan B would require the three municipalities working jointly to fill in the gaps of missing shelter services if the Humane Society abandoned the Savannah Road facility; Plan C would be a long-term plan of implementing new management in the shelter, preferably in the form of a third-party entity; and Plan D – which Ms. Arraiz admitted is still incomplete -- would address a course of action should the Humane Society shut its doors but still refuse to vacate the Savannah Road shelter, which is leased. The organization holds both title and a mortgage on the Glades Cutoff Road shelter in Port St. Lucie.
In response to questions from both Commissioners Reginald Sessions and Thomas Perona, the code compliance manager emphasized the current lease first awarded in 1956 and amended in 1987 was paid up through October of 2037.
“The Humane Society wanted to build more buildings and they needed more land to do it, so the city agreed to rewrite the lease to expand the footprint of the leaseholder,” she explained. “The reason for the 50-year lease – I went back and read all the minutes – the Humane Society said with the long-term lease they had a better chance of obtaining grants and funding. So the city commission at that time agreed to the 50-year lease, payable at $1 a year, which they paid in full at the time of the signing.”
Although not formally embedded in the contract, the Humane Society was expected to provide animal sheltering services for the city in exchange for the favorable land lease. The contract does include requirements for maintaining and upkeeping the buildings and a prohibition against subletting, among other provisions. Ms. Arraiz believes the city could potentially find legal grounds to invalidate the lease if need-be.
“There are default provisions and breaches of contract provisions as well as a provision for taking the land for public use,” she added. “We are asking the Commission to instruct staff, specifically the city attorney, to take any legal means that we have available to us to protect our interests.”
Continuing in that vein, Commissioner Johnson wanted details on the current condition of the shelter facilities.
“How have they performed with that, with this facility that’s on city property,” he asked. “How has the facility been maintained and what does it look like today?”
Ms. Arraiz said she conducted her most recent inspection on May 9.
“There were maintenance issues readily visible to myself,” she replied. “I have talked to my staff and I have talked to some volunteers and members of the public who have been in the building, and they have all indicated that there are maintenance issues readily visible.”
City Manager Nick Mimms said at the Commission’s bidding he would direct the city’s building official to do a thorough inspection of the facility to determine if it is kept in an appropriate condition.
“Hopefully we will gain the approval of the Humane Society to enter the premises,” he said. “If not, we will take legal action to do what we need to do.”
His response animated Commissioner Johnson even further, who then asked City Attorney Pete Sweeney about his office’s financial capacity to take on the project.
“Obviously you have the purview to take this on in-house, but do you have contract money in your budget if you were to seek outside counsel to start the review of this contract?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Sweeney answered, “but it would have to be done judiciously as always.”
Calling the latest turn of events “unfortunate,” Commissioner Perona then offered his support of any legal action that could potentially bring the issue to a resolution.
“The animals are not going to stop and wait for us to figure this out,” he said. “I’m at a point in time where I’d engage my legal department to be able to determine if there’s been any type of breach of contract whatsoever, and if so, let’s go ahead and perfect that in a way that puts us in a posture that can help the other two communities so we can do a concerted effort and get going on this thing.”
Mayor Hudson emphasized the long-term relationship Fort Pierce has had with the Humane Society but insisted the city could not double its funding to the organization.
“It sounds like breaking up is hard to do, but it might have to happen,” she said. “This is not your father’s Humane Society in the sense that it was once well-funded with lots of people volunteering. It seems to be a different organization than obviously it was in 1956 or 1987.”
Commissioner Session then made a motion to direct Mr. Sweeney to find if there is any basis for a breach of contract, which was seconded by Commissioner Johnson and passed 4-0, with Commissioner Rufus Alexander absent.
Several members of the public had addressed the Board prior to its discussion, with long-term Humane Society volunteer Dale Mutchler leading the pack. Mr. Mutchler had been the one to find fellow volunteer Christine Liquori mauled to death by a pit bull May 9 and the facility now had very few volunteers helping out.
“Something needs to be done at this point,” he said. “The people there are not taking care of animals, they’re not taking care of the grounds. The board that is currently there needs to be removed, the management, the medical staff, they all need to be removed. It needs to be a fresh start for the place, with the animals in mind and volunteers and the public in mind.”
Former volunteer Lori Baettger insisted the current board members of the Society are not making enough fundraising efforts.
“They don’t do any advertising for their animals whatsoever – it’s like unbelievable,” she said. “There’s no volunteer coordinator. The board of directors, nothing against them, they’re just not the right people for the job, I’m not trying to get personal, it’s been so evident.”
The Chairman and Director of the Humane Society of St. Lucie County, Mary Jean Navaretta, failed to respond to a series of email questions from the Hometown News by press time.