Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary lost the Kent County dog-control contract, but board president Lois Fargo said she hopes the no-kill shelter will remain open.
"We are in the process of working on restructuring, but, yes, we are planning to stay open," Fargo said. "We are picking up the pieces."
Fargo and the remaining four board members are pulling together volunteers and support from all the shelters in Delaware and several from out of state. Bob Burakiewicz, a board member who resigned earlier this year due to medical issues, was named interim executive director this week, Fargo said.
Kent County Levy Court commissioners voted 5-2 July 30 to cut ties with Safe Haven, ending a dog-control contract that had been renewed in June.
The commissioners said Safe Haven's financial woes gives them little confidence the shelter will be around to fulfill the $868,000 year-long contract.
Citing outstanding bills in excess of $200,000, Kent County Levy Court President Brooks Banta said, "I haven't heard a way out of debt that makes me comfortable enough for the people of Kent County."
According to Banta, Safe Haven's debt includes $100,000 in building costs, overdue kennel bills upwards of $10,000 and continuing monthly payments to keep the lights on at the shelter.
Safe Haven is in the middle of a four-year grant that gives them $50,000 per year for operations. The grant is in addition to the monthly stipend of about $72,000 Safe Haven received through the dog-control contract.
"This government has successfully operated for years; personally, I will not support anything that's not solid," Banta said.
Safe Haven spokesman David Hughes, accompanied by his wife and board member Rita Huges and Fargo, said the board plans to work with lenders to negotiate lower monthly payments. He said a new volunteer fundraising coordinator will work to bring in patron donations as well as apply for grants.
Hughes said Safe Haven paid unanticipated medical bills for some animals, but going forward, a panel will determine if money is spent on animals with health concerns.
He said over the past six months, Safe Haven has transferred or found homes for more than 300 dogs.
All of the more than 170 dogs now in Safe Haven's care, with the exception of one dog, are from Kent County, Hughes said.
Commissioner Bradley Eaby said even if the board is able to maintain a net profit each month of $4,700 – based on the grant the shelter receives – over the course of the year, it could not pay back even half of what Safe Haven owes to creditors.
"Safe Haven is flat-lining," Eaby said. "This new board came in, but it might be too late to save it."
Banta, who called the special meeting, said he understands Safe Haven has a new board – an idea the Safe Haven members promoted throughout the meeting even though two board members, Fargo and Georgetown attorney Hal Dukes have been on the board since the beginning, eight years ago. Banta said despite their efforts, Safe Haven board members have not come up with a good business model.
Kent County will send written notice giving Safe Haven 60 days to prepare for the loss of the contract. During that time, Kent County officials will have to consider who will take over the contract, said County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange.
Fargo said she is grateful for all the support Safe Haven has received in recent months.
"My hope for the future is that everyone who cares for animals starts to work together for the benefit of the animals of our state," Fargo said. "I think we need to be helpful to each other, not attacking each other."
Not everyone at the meeting was supportive of Safe Haven.
Kate Hungerford, a volunteer with the Delaware SPCA among other rescue groups, told Safe Haven board members after the meeting that they should be grateful to volunteers.
"Many of those volunteers out there helping you are from other rescue groups – the same groups you have bad-mouthed for years," Hungerford said.
For Marlene Oetzel, the shelter is not sustainable.
"This is what ego did," said Oetzel of Lost and Found Dog Rescue, based in New Castle County. "Some of those dogs at Safe Haven ... some of those dogs already transferred out of state, they were lost pets."
Oetzel said when dogs from Safe Haven are eventually put down because there is nowhere else for them to go, Safe Haven should be blamed.
Safe Haven board members said they plan to empty all three Sussex County kennels and bring those dogs back to temporary indoor and outdoor pens at the shelter.
"When dogs die in those pens outside, which will happen in the heat in August, that's on Safe Haven," Oetzel said. "Some of those dogs coming back from the kennels were dogs rescued from Kent County SPCA years ago. They've been in kennels for years, and likely they will end up back at KCSPCA."
Safe Haven highlights statewide problem
Many Cape Region and regional shelters have helped Safe Haven over the past two months; shelter volunteers and officials emphasize the difficulty of keeping a shelter open and the large burden of doing so.
Delaware SPCA's Georgetown shelter has taken in dozens of Safe Haven dogs and recently adopted out one of them.
Dick Byrne, a volunteer with Delaware SPCA in Georgetown who did not attend the meeting said the problems at Safe Haven demonstrate the need for public and state assistance for animal welfare.
"We have spayed and neutered more than 40 of Safe Haven's dogs over the past few weeks, and we have kept some to adopt out," Byrne said. "A number have been adopted. We are also working to spay and neuter some Safe Haven cats. We are looking for ways to be cooperative and supportive."
A retired educator from Washington, D.C., Byrne said the Delaware SPCA, which celebrated its 140th anniversary this past weekend, is the oldest and most experienced animal welfare organization in the state.
"We are doing all we can to fulfill the state's needs and doing it on limited resources," Byrne said. "We rely 100 percent on donations."
Delaware SPCA runs the largest high-volume, high-quality spay-neuter clinic in the state.
"It's an incredible service," Byrne said. "Public officials need to recognize the great need across this state and put more resources into animal welfare. We are all concerned about animals at Safe Haven because that is what this is all about – animals that need homes."
After the meeting, Kevin Usilton, director of the Kent County SPCA, which also vied for the Kent County dog-control contract and has had its share of run-ins with Safe Haven supporters, said he is willing to help the shelter.
Usilton said the financial burden faced by Safe Haven is the same felt by all other shelters in the state. He said KCSPCA is ready to step in to take over dog control in Kent County, but talks with Kent County have not yet started.
"Our state animal welfare system is off-balance. If Safe Haven's financial loss isn't proof, I am not sure what it will take to make positive efforts for our residents – human and animal."
Usilton said he is concerned animals at Safe Haven have not received vaccinations and have not been spayed and neutered, but he said KCSPCA is willing to help
"We send food for the dogs and cats and offered to place adoptable dogs and cats in our Petsmart adoption center. This is to help get animals forever homes," said Usilton. "Our board of directors voted to not euthanize any unadoptable animals currently in custody of Safe Haven."