Citing rising costs, contract violations, county says jail inmates will help look after dogs in county custody

The Columbia Humane Society announced Friday that its contract with Columbia County to care for dogs taken in by county Dog Control will end, effective Jan. 1.

"The Columbia Humane Society (CHS) will no longer be managing the welfare of stray, neglected, and abused dogs, or licensing dogs within Columbia County due to the County's cancellation of our contract," a news release from CHS states.

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Dogs greet visitors from a kennel at Columbia Humane Society. The shelter announced its contract with Columbia County to care for dogs in county custody was terminated earlier this year.County commissioners decided over the summer to terminate a contract with CHS, that was first initiated in 2013.

The decision came after CHS staff approached the county asking for more funding.

"We were getting paid $18,000 a year," Lisa Beggio, director of CHS, said Friday. "In 2016, that program alone cost us about $76,000 to run."

County spokeswoman Karen Kane said the county was asked to up the contract amount to $36,000 a year.

"We did ask for an increase in our fees, but they never negotiated with us at all," Beggio said. "What we got in response was a termination letter in July of 2017."

Kane said the county evaluated the services in the contract and concluded things could be done for cheaper in-house.

"When they wanted to double that amount, we looked at the contract and we tried to determine, can this be done a different way? Can it be done for less money?" Kane said.

But it wasn't just about the expenses.

County staff say they received complaints from the public about shelter staff, particularly when it came to adoptions and returning animals to owners.

Kane couldn't provide further comment about the nature of the complaints, but she and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said beyond the complaints, CHS violated its contract with the county by failing to indemnify the government agency and creating major legal and financial liability with its practices.

The county is currently named in an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2016 by Debbie Cravatta. Cravatta filed suit after she visited the CHS shelter and saw a dog in quarantine named "Duke" that she said she wanted to adopt. Cravatta was given permission, but says before she could get the dog, it was killed at the command of Dog Control Officer Roger Kadell, who said the dog's owner surrendered him and requested he be euthanized.

In a declaration filed Friday with Columbia Circuit Court, the dog's original owner, Sheena Long, said the county's statement that she asked for her dog to be put down is "patently untrue."

Long stated she never asked for the dog to be euthanized, but asked it be kept at the shelter after she was cited following an incident in which Duke bit someone.

"I did not say then, nor have I ever said, that I wanted Duke to be euthanized, and said instead simply that I was not asking any further that Duke be kept at the County shelter for the rest of his life," Long stated. Long said county dog control staff notified her that a "lady from Hawaii" (Cravatta) was interested in adopting the dog, but she was never put in touch with Cravatta and Duke was eventually killed.

Cravatta is seeking $10,000. Her case is still pending.

County staff say CHS personnel should have never allowed a member of the public to see or interact with a dog in quarantine, and should have never promised adoption of the dog.

CHS has a 99-year lease with the county for use of the Holsheimer Lamar Animal Shelter in St. Helens. Prior to its contract with the county to provide dog care services, the nonprofit organization occupied part of the building, with county Dog Control staff using a different portion.

That arrangement will be put in place again beginning in January, but instead of hiring staff to oversee dogs in county custody, jail inmates will be used to feed dogs and clean kennels, Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said.

"We see this as a huge opportunity," DIckerson said. "The inmates get some investment in the welfare of the community and the animals of the community."

In a news release, Beggio said because of the contract termination, the shelter will lose kennel space, and crucial funding.

CHS plans to cut three staff members and reduce its business hours to noon-5 p.m., Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday.

"The Humane Society will remain no-kill, we just will not have any say in what happens with animals from the county anymore," Beggio said Friday.

She said the termination of the county contract will result in one third of her organization's funds being lost, as well as reduced kennel space, but the county refutes that, saying CHS will actually get more kennel space after the transition.

She said she also fears more dogs will be euthanized because the county is only required to keep a dog in its custody for three to five days.

Dickerson said moving forward, if dogs are not picked up or claimed by owners in a five-day period, they will be offered to CHS as adoptable dogs, or to the Oregon Humane Society if CHS declines.

"If the Humane Society doesn't want [dogs] to be euthanized, they won't be," Dickerson said, noting CHS will have first rights to any dogs left in county custody, at no charge.

County staff says CHS will actually retain most of its operating space at the shelter, and the county will cover half the electricity and heating costs.

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