The hiring of well-known local veterinarian Raul Figarola to manage Hernando County Animal Services is being hailed as a positive first step toward bringing harmony to the embattled department.
Figarola, a veterinarian with ASAP Animal Clinic, has been hired on a 90-day contract that pays him $4,420 a month.
Meanwhile, the county will continue to look for someone, preferably another veterinarian, to be the permanent manager.
But Figarola's hire ensures that the county is serious about bringing on an experienced professional who is concerned about animals, said Joanne Schoch, executive director for the Humane Society of the Nature Coast.
"I think it's fantastic," Schoch said. "Figarola is one of the most respected vets in our community. He has experience in animal services."
Schoch admitted Figarola is being placed in a difficult position, given the problems that have besieged animal services in recent months. It began last April when a highly-publicized bungled dog euthanasia infuriated the community and ultimately resulted in the departure of then-Animal Services Manager Liana Teague.
A critical county audit expressed the need for more supervision and better policy enforcement at the department.
County Administrator Len Sossamon directed Public Safety Director Mike Nickerson to focus his sole attention on animal services so he could meet specified deadlines set forth by the audit.
The hiring of Figarola on a limited basis is Nickerson's first step in turning things around. He recommended Figarola to Sossamon and the hire now awaits formal approval by County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.
"I think he's the perfect man for the job," Nickerson said.
Nickerson said he has already received a handful of requests for the permanent position. The cutoff for applications is Nov. 21.
Nickerson said he would enthusiastically support Figarola being hired as the full-time manager but said the veterinarian is not interested in a long-term commitment because of the demands of his own practice.
"If he changes his mind, we'll consider it absolutely," Nickerson said.
Figarola said he well aware of what he is well aware of the position he has agreed to tackle.
"It's a very hot seat," he said. "It's not a good thing, coming in when everything in animal services has been negative and bad."
Figarola said he took the temporary assignment because he wants to make improvements, including reaching out to other vets, volunteers and the community. When all is said and done, we're all in this together, he said.
For example, there are times when there are 140 animals in the shelter and only one person to oversee them.
"We need help," Figarola said. "We need volunteers, we need the community to get involved because this is not something that can be solved by one or two people."
Figarola said he has had his own practice for eight or nine years and managed an animal services facility about 20 years ago in Dade County.