Sussex challenges First State’s right to terminate animal control services

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County’s attorney said Tuesday no legal basis exists for the contracted provider of animal control services in Delaware to terminate its responsibilities after Sept. 15 as announced.

Speaking at the weekly Sussex County Council meeting, the attorney, Everett Moore, said the contract with First State Animal Center-SPCA remains valid through Dec. 30.

Through spokesman Chip Guy, Sussex County government issued the following statement:

“After legal review by our attorney, it is the [c]ounty’s position that we still have a valid contract with (First State Animal Center-SPCA) through the end of 2015, and any consideration for a stopgap measure between September 15 and December 31 is secondary.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Guy said Sussex County had not yet communicated its stance with FSAC-SPCA, but would do so “in short order.”

FSAC-SPCA Executive Director Kevin Usilton said a clause in the contract referring to an “unforseen catastrophe beyond either parties control” allowed his nonprofit to opt out of the contract. He said the State of Delaware’s transition plan to take over animal control would hamstring FSAC-SPCA operations to the point of not being able to provide services.

Earlier he mentioned the potential departure of employees that could not be replaced due to the uncertain future as contracts expired.

Also, Mr. Usilton said, “If Sussex wants to move forward with legal action they’re well within their power, but when the state usurps our power and resources we can’t fulfill the terms of the contract.”

Sussex County Deputy Administrator Hal Godwin said he had been working on assembling a temporary work force to handle animal control issues after Sept. 15, which is unnecessary with a valid contract still active.

Mr. Godwin attended a Monday meeting at Kent County Levy Court in Dover designed to address the upcoming to the State of Delaware for animal control in less than two months.

After a 2 1/2 hour meeting Mr. Godwin said he left impressed by the state’s commitment to oversee animal control and “the biggest plus for us is the state is taking over and we really didn’t want dog control responsibilities in the first place.

“The state seems fully engaged in forming a plan in the interim that will address issues and people are on board from all interested parties to make that happen.”

Thus, Mr. Godwin said, “I am feeling much better about the state’s ability to administer the program in the long term.”

Short term, all three counties and the City of Wilmington are weighing options when contract expire.

“It’s an ongoing process and it’s under review,” said New Castle County spokesman Antonio Prado.

Attempts to reach Kent County Administrator Mike Petit de Mange on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Hettie Brown, executive director of the Office of Animal Welfare, said Monday’s meeting included “an open dialogue to discuss what options were available (to the counties and Wilmington) regarding dog control services” but it was “a little premature to discuss short- and long-term possibilities” at this point.

Ms. Brown said all affected parties would “circle back” after considering paths to move forward and “we continue to work together in a collaborative effort” to find the best solutions for the future.

New Castle County government was notified of Monday’s meeting but no representative appeared, Ms. Brown said.

There has been no communication since, she said. Mr. Prado said scheduling issues would not allow a representative to attend.

The state is also weighing options on how to address animal cruelty enforcement and rabies control, Ms. Brown said.

Ms. Brown said the process of transition to state control would remain as transparent as possible, noting that animal control was discussed at public Animal Welfare Task Force meetings in 2012 and 2013. The Office of Animal Welfare published two sets of recommendations after a series of meetings between animal shelters, nonprofits, public and private stakeholders, she said.

Also, the issues were discussed specifically at three General Assembly Joint Finance Committee hearings before being legislatively addressed on the last day of the current lawmaking session with a transition to state control.
FSAC-SPCA had ongoing annual contracts with Sussex County ($682,616), Kent County ($895,041.12), New Castle County ($1,035,000), Wilmington ($600,000), city of Dover ($40,000), Department of Public Health for rabies ($275,520) and Cruelty Reimburse ($106,000).

Contracts were scheduled to run through:
• Sussex County, Dec. 30, 2015
• Kent County, June 30, 2017
• New Castle County, Dec. 30, 2016
• City of Wilmington, June 30, 2016
• City of Dover, ongoing
• Department of Health, rabies, June 30, 2016
• Cruelty Reimburse, June 30, 2016.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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