BROOKSVILLE Liana Teague will no longer be manager of the county's animal services department.
Her supervisor, Public Safety Director Michael Nickerson announced Tuesday night he hopes to replace Teague with someone skilled in animal behavior, preferably a veterinarian.
That person should be hired and ready to work no later than Oct. 1, Nickerson said.
The announcement was greeted with applause from many of the 45 people who attended Tuesday's event, sponsored by the Humane Society of the Nature Coast Inc.
Teague, criticized for her role in the euthanasia of a pit bull mix puppy named Zeus less than 30 minutes after it was dropped off at her department, will continue to head the county code enforcement department.
Nickerson also said he will have a new operational plan for the department in the hands of county commissioners, probably by mid-September. That plan outlines other changes designed to improve efficiency at the department.
That new plan will outline new policies and a request for more paid staffers. The latter may be difficult given the tight budget constraints, he said. He doesnâ€™t think he can reach the recommended goal of 40 overall positions, as outlined in a recent audit.
Thank to better evaluation procedures, the department has cut back on animal euthanasia. During the last quarter, the rate was 28 percent, compared to 70 percent a year ago.
"That's fine for a quarter but we have to make it sustainable," Nickerson said. "We have to make it last."
Nickerson attributed the improvement to more assistance from area rescue groups, more adoptions and the work of staff and volunteers.
While there is probably no chance of making the department a no-kill facility, there are ways to improve the euthanasia rate through better monitoring, he said. Nickerson also garnered applause when said he would explore tweaking the operating hours of the department, perhaps being open Saturdays.
"We're certainly going in the right direction," he said.
Nickerson said he hopes county commissioners are willing to spend the money. Unlike cuts in parks, which might affect the length of grass or delays in league games, "we're dealing with live animals," he said.
County Commissioner John Druzbick, one of the panelists Tuesday, said it is time to move beyond the blame game as to what went wrong and focus on improving the department.
"Were there mistakes made? No doubt about it," Druzbick said. "But there were mistakes all over the place."
Druzbick said he accepted some of the blame for essentially cutting funding to the department and asking staff to do too much.
"They were put in positions that were not conducive to getting the job done," Druzbick said.
Druzbick said Nickerson was stretched too thin by trying to balance the demands of so many departments under his supervision, which included animal services, code enforcement and the fire department.
"It was an experiment for disaster," Druzbick said.
Nickerson said the decision to remove Teague was not because of the controversial Zeus incident or any other single incident.
Nickerson said Teague will be able to focus her energy on the code enforcement side of public safety.
It will also enable the county to bring in a manager who, as Nickerson said, "will rule with an iron fist" and who has experience in dealing with animals.
Nickerson said he is optimistic that bringing in jail inmates to help the staffers and volunteers at animal services will also lead to efficiencies.
Four staffers are finishing up getting certified to supervise the low-risk inmates, who will be allowed to groom and bathe the animals and tend the grounds.
The animal services budget is $760,000, with $290,000 used for the four field officers who will soon be under the sheriff's authority.
"We are not asking for a Cadillac operation," Nickerson said. "Just a working Ford."
Panelist Mary Peter, with Stillwater Dog Training, said she's been helping with dog evaluations at Animal Services to ensure each animal's adoption label is accurate. For example, often a dog when first dropped off will exhibit aggressiveness that will go away as it becomes more relaxed.
Nickerson said there will be no more incidents of quick euthanasia or on-the-spot evaluations of animals.
"That wasn't against the policy then (with Zeus) but it will be now," he said.
Nickerson assured the crowd he would present a plan to county commissioners next month that spells out the budgetary and staff needs.
"Failure is not an option," he said.
Audience member Lee Ann Foust said she is encouraged by the inmate assistance program.
"I love that idea," Foust said. "They (the inmates) get experience about getting a job in the future. I think they will be great (and) compassionate."
Sylvia Lackey of Brooksville said she came to the meeting to learn what efficiencies were planned.
"Animals are not disposal items, like a milk carton," Lackey said.
Lackey said too many people adopt animals and have no idea the best way to care for them.
Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast Inc., thanked everyone for coming to Tuesday's meeting.
"Together we can move mountains," she told the audience. "We just need to have a plan and move that plan (forward)."