Representatives from the Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary testify before Kent County Levy Court commissioners Tuesday night.
Safe Haven Board of Directors President Lois Fargo is sworn in by Levy Court clerk Lorraine Tanaka.
Richard L. Shehorn of Hartly gestures angrily at the commissioners during the public comment session, following the vote to terminate the contract. Shehorn stridently criticized the panel, saying they had made unreasonable demands on Safe Haven, particularly compared to the county’s prior contractor. His comments brought a rebuke from Commissioner Eric Buckson, who invited him to review documentation regarding the sanctuary’s finances.

Kent County Levy Court commissioners, in a 5 to 2 vote, elected Tuesday night to end its contract with the Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary.

Members of Kent County Levy Court met the night of July 30 in a special session called expressly to discuss the county's canine control contract with the Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary in Georgetown.

The result of more than two-and-a-half hours of discussion was a 5 to 2 vote to terminate the $868,972 contract in 60 days.

While commissioners in general praised Safe Haven's philosophy of humane treatment and dedication to not euthanizing animals, most also said they had come to realize the shelter's "no kill" thinking was incompatible with the needs of the county and the terms of the contract.

Sitting at a table between the seven commissioners and the audience, who filled nearly every chair in the 181-seat chamber, volunteer David Hughes, along with his wife, board of directors member Rita Hughes and board President Lois Fargo, admitted the shelter had its problems.

Unintentional fiscal negligence and a failure of the board of directors to work together were major factors in the shelter's inability to meet its obligations, both financial and managerial, Hughes said.

Not up to the task

Commissioner Eric Buckson told the group their no-kill policy and the resulting medical expenses meant the shelter simply could not take care of the animals it took in.

"The numbers don't lie," he said. "You have to acknowledge it's not going to add up. You can't plan a budget around what you hope will come in."

Levy Court President Brooks Banta agreed with that assessment, making it clear on several occasions he felt the county was not getting what it had contracted for.

Banta repeated that thought when he voted in favor of terminating the contract.

"This is a very passionate situation and dog control is extremely critical," Banta said. "But as elected officials, it's important we use logic, and seeing the amount of money that's owed by Safe Haven to many of its creditors, plus a basic plan of action that I think is [not] sustainable, I vote yes."

Panel Vice President Brad Eaby commended the group's work but described the sanctuary's situation overall as "flat-lining," despite efforts to keep it alive.

Commissioners Allan Angel and Jody Sweeney disagreed with their fellow commissioners in casting the two votes against terminating the contract.

Before voting, Angel said he felt Safe Haven's board had been administering the contract to the best of their ability and that the financial problems the group has suffered were not a result of the county's dog control contract.

"I really can't support, unless we give them some time to work it out," Angel said.

"I still feel this facility needs some time."

Sweeney agreed.

"From my discussions with you guys, you seem very committed to that dog control in Kent County," he told the Safe Haven group. "You're obviously very committed to taking care of the dogs. It's tough to be in that position. I know it costs a lot of money and I wish the money would just start falling in from contracts or grants or donations."

He was willing to give the sanctuary the benefit of the doubt, Sweeney said.

Members of the audience clear made their disagreement with the final vote during a public comment session afterward.

Jon Patz of Dover agreed with Angel about giving second chances, and blasted the commissioners for failing to do so. Several years ago, Patz reminded the commissioners, they had given a trash recycling business numerous opportunities to comply with county codes without taking punitive action.

"But you couldn't give these people 60 days to straighten it out? Shame on you, all of you. Shame on you!" he cried. "A society is judged on how they treat their pets, and you treated the dogs in their care like crap.

"Shame on you."

Others agreed with the commissioners.

Marleen M. Oetzel of New Castle gave the panel a thumbs-up.

"I would like to say, in case you gentlemen don't know this, that it is not appropriate to put dogs outside in the summer, which is what they are planning on doing," she said, referring to a supposed plan by Safe Haven to harbor dogs under tents instead of in kennels.

"And I would like to say that, because of your probing questions and their answers – great."

Letter to be sent

It will fall to County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange to formally advise the Safe Haven board, in writing, that the contract is being terminated. He then will begin negotiations to find a replacement.

The organization he will be talking to will be the Kent County SPCA, he said.

As for Safe Haven, Petit de Mange said he expects the shelter will continue to fulfill its part of the contract until the termination date.

"We will be working with them and the successor vendor on a transition plan," he said.

Petit de Mange expects to have a draft contract available for the commissioners to review by their August 20 meeting, with a final to be voted on in September.

Petit de Mange could not state exactly when the new vendor would take over, noting it would be the day after Safe Haven's contract ends, which will be 60 calendar days from the date the board of directors receives the certified termination letter.

As of press time, that letter had not been sent, said Levy Court Public Information Officer Kia Evans.

Sussex Countian reporter Sarah Lake contributed to this story.