After they said they were caught off guard by the county’s decision to terminate a professional services and lease agreements with them, the operators of Leftover Pets said earlier this month they want to continue operating in Barrow County but will need to find a more affordable space to do so.
The nonprofit’s agreement with the county to provide spay/neuter surgeries and other services for the dogs and cats at the county’s animal control shelter expires Tuesday, June 30. Per a 90-day notice stipulation in an expiring lease agreement with the county, Leftover Pets can remain in the county-owned building at 610 Barrow Park Dr. — which it renovated and has occupied since 2011 — until early September, but will see its rent increase from $250 to $1,500 per month in July and August and $50 for any days in September.
Susan Thompson, the office manager, grant writer and veterinary assistant for Leftover Pets, said the organization hopes to quickly find a new, more affordable location to continue operating.
Supporters and advocates of Leftover Pets have said if it can’t continue operating, that would mean the loss of a “lifeline” in a community in need of low-cost spay/neuter services.
In addition to the on-average 900-1,000 animals it has spayed/neutered for Barrow County Animal Control each year, the organization does about two times that amount for private pet owners. And more than 50 percent of those require financial assistance, which the organization provides and then applies for and often receives grant money to make up at least some of the difference, Thompson said. She said Leftover Pets provided about $29,000 in financial assistance last year alone.
Thompson, Leftover Pets veterinarian Amber Polvere and the organization’s supporters have expressed frustration at the recent county decision to sever a nearly decade-long relationship, saying county officials weren’t forthcoming enough about the reasons for the termination of the professional services agreement and that the June 9 vote by the county board of commissioners was taken with very little scrutiny from board members.
And while county officials touted the switch from Leftover Pets to metro-Atlanta for-profit organization CatSnip for the professional services as a means of enhancing the county’s animal programs and improving operational efficiency, it was also suggested that programmatic differences and conflicts between Leftover Pets and animal control personnel (which Thompson and Polvere said they were never made aware of by the county) factored into the switch.
“We’re determined to find another space in Barrow County because this community has been so wonderful to us,” Thompson said. “But we do not believe the county voters have been given enough information about the change and the commissioners were not given enough information to make an informed decision.”
THE BOARD VOTE
Thompson and Polvere said they were blindsided by the recommendation from county manager Mike Renshaw and animal control director Jaclyn Fryman to terminate the agreements with Leftover Pets and enter a similar professional services agreement with CatSnip, effective July 1, because they had not received any communication from Renshaw or Fryman about a renewal of the contracts since their previous renewal in December 2018.
The board of commissioners had also not discussed a switch in vendors at any of its meetings. For the past year, it has been the board’s practice to discuss agenda items in work sessions and then vote on them at subsequent meetings two weeks later. But those work sessions were put on hold in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and only resumed this week.
Adding to the confusion was a 30-day notice for the PSA termination that Leftover Pets was sent by Jeffrey Strickland of Jarrard & Davis, the law firm that provides legal services to the county. The letter, dated June 1, said the termination notice was “in accordance with” a recent board of commissioners meeting but was sent eight days prior to the board’s June 9 vote. In a subsequent letter dated June 4, Strickland apologized for what Renshaw called a timing mistake and clarified the vote would be held June 9. A final notice was sent June 10, the day after the board’s vote to terminate the agreements.
The June 9 meeting, held via Zoom due to the pandemic and broadcast live on the county’s website, drew several viewers and more than two dozen residents and supporters of Leftover Pets, including Thompson and Polvere, signed up to speak in support of Leftover Pets. About half of them gave remarks during the limited public-comment period. Despite their urging to table a vote for further discussion, the board approved the recommendations with little discussion. Commissioner Rolando Alvarez was the lone dissenting vote on the decision to terminate the agreements with Leftover Pets before voting with the rest of the commission to approve the new PSA with CatSnip.
While CatSnip could eventually put together a lease agreement with the county and move into the building that Leftover Pets has occupied, it will for now utilize its mobile trailer, which will be located next to the animal control shelter at 616 Barrow Park Dr.
The fees charged by CatSnip to the county for services would be similar to those in the county’s agreement with Leftover Pets with CatSnip charging $5 less in most dog and cat categories. The biggest difference will be that the county will purchase microchips — adding a little more than $20,000 to the animal control department’s professional services line item in the county’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget — and CatSnip will implant them at no charge. Per the current agreement, Leftover Pets has purchased the microchips and charged the county $5 per implant. Renshaw acknowledged the line-item increase but said the microchips would come with enhanced software for the department.
The other change is that CatSnip will charge $5 for rabies vaccinations for animals 12 weeks and older, while the Leftover Pets charge has been free.
There was less clarity given at the meeting, though, about what CatSnip’s availability in Barrow would be compared to the other communities it serves and what private services it would offer to the community at large.
CatSnip’s website states that it no longer provides spay/neuter surgeries for dogs, and there is no mention of financial aid that it offers. There were also still no Barrow County service dates listed on its calendar for July and August as of Tuesday, June 23.
When asked by Alvarez about those concerns, Fryman and Renshaw said CatSnip would commit to more days in Barrow County once an agreement was in place and would be open to exploring more private services. CatSnip owner Renee Cardona said she would purchase the dog medications needed for the procedures from one of her distributers once the agreement was in place.
“We’ll have access to faster service and the animals will be ready for adoption faster (through CatSnip),” Fryman said, adding that the organization had agreed that it could fix animals for private residents as well and “those we identify that are in need of financial assistance.”
Fryman said the county had secured a $15,000 grant to provide financial aid for spay/neuter (which the board approved the acceptance of at its meeting Tuesday) and was applying for an additional $15,000. She and Renshaw also said CatSnip’s mobile clinic would aid the county’s ability to do special events and that they could take the mobile clinic to low-income pet owners’ homes, clearing potential transportation barriers.
“It’s still our intent to create a relationship with another organization that will do the same if not enhance what Leftover Pets has already been doing for the community,” Fryman said.
“‘Open to’ is not a commitment,” Polvere told The Barrow News-Journal the week after the meeting, in response to Fryman’s statements. “Our biggest complaint is we wanted the commissioners to learn more, get all the accurate information and understand more about this so they could take a fully-informed vote.”
CatSnip did not respond to questions from The Barrow News-Journal for this story by press time.
Leftover Pets representatives also questioned why the PSA was not put out to bid. Renshaw said the PSA's classification as a medical services agreement exempted it from the procurement requirement.
While Renshaw touted an enhancement of program and operational efficiencies as the driving reason behind the switch and noted the termination of the agreements was “for convenience” and not due to any contractual breach, he indicated that other differences played a part as well.
“Although Leftover Pets has been providing excellent veterinary services in our community for a decade, I feel there is a real opportunity to introduce positive change through this new partnership, a change that will bring new ideas, new models and methods of delivering such a valuable service, and hopefully better working relationships and interactions with our Animal Control staff and very valuable volunteers,” Renshaw said, in both an email to residents who inquired about the recommendation and his statement to commissioners when the recommendation was presented.
One of the differences concerned the county’s plans to implement a new community cat program to address a significant feral cat issue in the county. Details of the proposed program were presented to commissioners at an Aug. 27 meeting, and county officials said a primary goal was to find willing landowners in the county to participate in a “barn cat” program where nuisance cats would be trapped, neutered or spayed, and then relocated to barns/farms instead of being taken back to and released where they were picked up from.
Thompson and Polvere said the concept was a viable option for protecting the well-being of feral cats but that they were not willing to participate in the program as presented because it “did not meet industry standards.”
Specifically, they raised the issue that the per-cat spacing proposed for the cages would be less than short-term spacing recommendations made by the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery in 2018.
Thompson and Polvere said they attempted to follow up with county officials after that Aug. 27 presentation via email with their thoughts and concerns but never received a response from Renshaw or Fryman.
On Aug. 14, just under two weeks before the presentation on the community cat program, Thompson emailed Fryman an alternative trap-neuter-return proposal in which Leftover Pets would reserve 10 appointment slots one day per week at the Athens Humane Society. Barrow Animal Control staff would trap the cats and transport them to Athens and bring them back from there the following day. Leftover Pets would then cover the bill through grant funding.
Thompson said Fryman never followed up with her, and she sent the same email to Renshaw on Aug. 28.
Renshaw forwarded the email to Fryman and wrote, “I don’t recall discussing this with you. It sounds like a viable option this year and perhaps next (less costly than hiring additional staff and purchasing more cat cages).”
Renshaw said he subsequently discussed the proposal with Fryman and it was determined “we did not have the staffing or the budgetary resources to commit to this model offered by Leftover Pets.”
Renshaw said the county has plans to renovate the existing kennels to provide more space that is “more congruent with the suggested space requirements.”
“We are looking into grants to receive portals that connect two existing kennels together to create more space,” he said. “It should be noted that the (Georgia) Department of Agriculture, which conducts inspections of our facilities and procedures, have found our shelter to be in compliance.”
POOR WORKING RELATIONSHIP?
In emails to residents inquiring about his recommendation to the board, Renshaw also referenced “less than courteous and professional treatment of volunteers and staff at the Animal Control shelter” by Leftover Pets staff and/or volunteers and that Fryman and her staff had attempted to address it with the organization in recent years.
While the issue was raised by two Leftover Pets supporters during the public-comment period at the June 9 meeting, neither Renshaw, Fryman nor commissioners addressed the alleged interactions.
Thompson and Polvere maintain that no negative interactions were ever brought to their attention by the county, and Renshaw and Fryman did not provide The Barrow News-Journal with documentation of any incidents.
Renshaw, though, did say he took exception to a complaint lodged by Leftover Pets with the Department of Agriculture earlier this year. An inspector investigated the complaint and cleared the shelter of any wrongdoing.
In the complaint, Thompson said that the shelter had two dogs in wire crates as their primary enclosures, which she believed to be in violation of a new department policy. Thompson said an inspector with the department had visited both the Leftover Pets clinic and the animal shelter to inform them of the new policy days before she noticed the dogs in the crates. She said she contacted the inspector about how to address the situation and was told to visit the department’s website and fill out a complaint form.
Fryman said the wire crates the dogs were housed in did meet the animal protection rules. The dogs, both under 10 pounds, were put in wire crates rather than the large dog runs in the kennel area in order to reserve the dog runs for larger incoming dogs and to “create a lower-stress environment.”
“At the time of the investigative inspection, both dogs had been adopted or reclaimed and were not present at the time,” Fryman said. “I explained to the Inspector what we had done and why we had done it. The animals were let out either all day and allowed to roam in the front office or walked several times a day. The dogs were provided with clean kennels, fresh water and fresh food every day.
“The inspector said that she was fine with the accommodations that we provided as described.”
Renshaw said he considered it “very unusual for a contracted vendor/professional service provider to take such action against a client.”
“Whatever their concerns may have been to have prompted their decision to file this complaint with the state, no one from Leftover Pets, Inc. communicated any of that information to me in advance, which I considered to be extremely unprofessional,” he said.
Thompson said she did not feel like it was her purview to notify the county since the inspector had discussed the policy with both the clinic and the shelter on the same day.
“Since the outset of our relationship with Animal Control, we have always done our best to educate the animal shelter staff on appropriate animal handling and care,” she said. “The mission of our organization is animal welfare and we both (Polvere and her) believe very strongly in kind and thoughtful treatment of shelter animals.
“We feel the county displayed a startling lack of professionalism in their interactions with our organization and Barrow County voters. Leftover Pets was founded to help animals and that is the mission we will continue to pursue. The support we received from people here encourages us to continue to operate in this area. We intend to eventually purchase a building, but our short-term goal is to find an affordable lease and move on from these interactions.”