The sheriff’s office is investigating a number of financial irregularities and other issues at the Columbus County Animal Shelter.
Sheriff Jody Greene, who is interim director of the department, said Tuesday that adoption fees and other money remain unaccounted for. There are also discrepancies in drug records.
“We have a lot of questions that have to be answered,” Greene said. Director Loretta Shipman is on extended medical leave.
The county is in the process of revamping the agency and the animal shelter. The department was turned over to the sheriff’s office in February. Since then, Greene said, CCSO staff has been working to make positive changes at Animal Control. The department is becoming the Animal Protective Services division of the sheriff’s office. Staff will be under the direction of the sheriff’s office, which will speed up investigations and improve response.
As part of the change, Greene said, his staff found numerous irregularities that are being investigated by detectives as well as state officials. Greene said he is working with officials from the Department of Agriculture to make all the necessary improvements on the shelter.
“They are going through it like we are setting up an entirely new shelter,” Greene said. “The whole process could take three or four months, but it will be an entirely new shelter and department when we are finished.”
Greene said he is working on an agreement with Southeastern Community College to remodel the kennels to bring them up to state standards, and has obtained a pressure washer at no cost to assist in cleaning kennels.
“Right now,” he said, “if you clean one pen, you end up cleaning them all, because you’re washing everything from one pen into the next. If you have a sick dog, you’re spreading those germs to other animals. That’s not right.”
He told commissioners Monday night that virtually no money from adoption fees can be found, and there is little documentation to show how much money has gone in and out of the shelter. In addition, existing records don’t accurately show how many animals were taken by individuals as opposed to rescue organizations, or where those animals went.
Previous requests for an explanation of the reduced rescue fees have not been answered by Shipman, former County Manager Mike Stephens or County Finance Office Bobbie Faircloth, who is currently suspended. Animal Control also did not provide a list of rescue organizations or how many animals went to those organizations in previous requests for information.
Greene noted Tuesday at animals taken by rescues are commonly advertised on social media websites with requests for donations for veterinary care and vaccinations, some of which are provided by the county before the animals leave the shelter. The donations are collected by the rescues. Some dogs and puppies can receive hundreds of dollars of online pledges, depending on the species.
“The county sees none of that revenue,” Green said. “Where is it going?”
In 2019, the most recent complete set of data from the shelter, 1,071 dogs and 1,371 cats were taken into the shelter. Of those, 936 dogs and 1,237 cats were adopted. Owners retrieved 78 dogs and ten cats. The shelter euthanized 57 dogs and 128 cats.
Adoption fees for individuals are $135 for dogs and $85 for cats. That cost includes a spay/neuter voucher and vaccinations. Bona fide rescue organizations pay a lower rate. There is no cost for cats that go into the Barn Buddy program, which places sterilized, vaccinated feral cats on farms. Data for the Barn Buddy program has not been available since 2017, after the departure of former Animal Control Director Joey Prince.
If all the animals were adopted by individuals at the full rate in 2019 – which is unlikely – revenues would total $144,585 for dogs and $105,145 for cats.
The county website says the shelter is currently closed “to all non-emergency intakes” due to staffing problems. Green received approval Monday to replace two part-time positions with one full time worker.
“There are four vacant positions there right now,” Greene said.
The shelter is still open for adoptions from noon until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. The shelter’s page on the county website also says hours are from noon until 4 p.m.
Last year, the shelter was widely criticized for only allowing animals to be viewed by appointment, due to COVID-19 concerns. Several potential adopters as well as citizens trying to retrieve their own pets from the shelter complained that staff missed appointments or refused to open the door for visitors.
Greene said that the scope of financial and other problems at the shelter was so large, and the shelter is part of county government, he initially requested that the State Bureau of Investigation handle the review. District Attorney Jon David recommended that the sheriff’s office handle the case.
“There are a lot of different moving parts,” Greene said, “but we are going to give the people of this county the Animal Protective Services division that we have needed for a long time.”