By Sarah Colson and Jeff Keeling
When the Washington County-Johnson City Animal Control Board (ACB) announced the pending retirement of Director Debbie Dobbs last winter, they figured she’d be officially retired by spring and off to vacation any time she pleased this summer.
With a hot August mercifully inching toward fall, though, Dobbs is still overseeing operations at the still newish, 18,000-square-foot shelter. That’s because the process to find her replacement has been unexpectedly complicated, ACB Vice Chairwoman Linda Bearfield told News & Neighbor early this month.
“We have now come to realize more than ever what a huge task the director faces,” Bearfield said of the now seven-month search process, which has neared closure a couple of times before candidates backed out or the board realized a finalist wasn’t the right fit.
“It’s unbelievable. Part of that is because peoples’ attitudes toward animal care are changing,” said Bearfield, who is the Humane Society of Washington County’s representative on the board.
“The person who comes in … has to be accountable to animals, accountable to people, they have to raise money, they have to be able to write grants, they have to be able to keep a database that tells us where every animal is and the status of every animal… it is an enormous task. So the people we’re talking to, they look at the nature of the beast and they’re going, ‘whoa… that’s a lot.’”
So much, in fact, that at its monthly meeting Monday the ACB unanimously approved a recommendation from Chairman Gary McAllister to split the job into two positions. One, still titled executive director, would deal with the administration, fundraising, volunteer recruitment and public relations of running a shelter that has seen great strides in adoptions, “return to owners” and euthanasia rates since the mid-2015 move from an outdated shelter less than a third its size.
The other position, “animal control and operations manager,” would report to the director and manage animal control activities and care of animals in the shelter. ACB member Ralph Van Brocklin said Monday he hoped the board still might find a candidate capable of doing both jobs. He added, though, that after six months of searching in vain, “I think that’s unlikely.
“We’ve got to get moving on this without a doubt and if this facilitates getting this accomplished, that’s great,” Van Brocklin added.
McAllister acknowledged after the meeting the cost for two positions will be higher. The top salary the ACB was considering was $62,000. Now, McAllister says, they’ll advertise compensation as “based on experience,” but two positions almost certainly will approach six figures between them.
A good executive director, without some of the other direct responsibilities, should be capable of fundraising sufficiently to make up the difference and more, McAllister said. “That’s what we’re counting on. That position really needs to pay for itself, and we’re confident the base of donors is out there.”
Bearfield suggested that in revising the advertisement for the director position, the ACB, “make it clear they won’t be responsible” for directly managing the animal control side of things.
McAllister said the next step is to go back and look through the applications already received to see if any of them might fit better into covering just one of the proposed positions. In the meantime, he added, Dobbs will continue to be an invaluable resource to both the shelter and the Humane Society.
“We couldn’t have done this without Debbie,” McAllister said. “She’s been there at the shelter and every time I talk to her I say ‘thank you so much for staying with us’ and she says ‘I’m going to make sure these animals are taken care of.’ … We want to make sure we get the right person for it and we appreciate the community’s support in all this. It’s been a process. We have a great building there and we want to make sure we move forward.”
Bearfield said the partnership between the shelter and the Humane Society has never been stronger. This summer, they have coordinated together to help foster cats and dogs who would otherwise be spending their days in the shelter.
“That gives those kittens a chance to get out of the shelter and live,” Bearfield said. “We’re pulling kittens as often as we can pull them. … We also did an adoption day there. Someone sponsored the spay and neuters and the Humane Society went over and every animal that had been there, cats and dogs, over three months, was free sponsored adoption with an approved application. There’s all kinds of things going on now where the two are working together.”
In fact, board members learned Monday, the fiscal year that concluded June 30 saw a euthanization rate of 35 percent, with fewer animals put down than any previous year. Most were cats. And in July, thanks in part to a growing number of animals with microchips “on board,” 65 animals were returned to owners – another record.
“This is a huge amount of progress,” said Van Brocklin, adding that three years ago the total rate was 60 percent, and was at 51 percent for dogs. Very few dogs are being euthanized now. “We have work to do without a doubt, but there’s some things we can do to get that figure even lower,” Van Brocklin said.
Still, Bearfield said, 46 cats were euthanized last month, so even more Humane Society-Shelter collaboration is possible.
“What we really need is to be hand-in-hand. That would be the most ideal.”
For now, Dobbs continues to operate as director and will do so until one, or two, replacements are found.
“Of course we need a new director,” Bearfield said. “There’s no doubt. And we are not dragging our feet. We just have hit a dead end at every turn.”