Slowly but surely, Manatee County's Animal Services Division is steering toward top-to-bottom reforms as outlined by the agency's interim director last week.
As we expected, Bill Hutchison advanced an agenda with major organizational improvements that leave a positive impression about the future. The division's vital animal and public safety mission fell into disrepute over failures to hold one private animal sanctuary to high standards and continuing to transfer shelter animals there despite evidence of mistreatment.
Hutchison outlined his broad ideas for change and some specifics in front of some 50 people attending last week's meeting of the Manatee County Animal Services Advisory Board.
One of his key pledges speaks to his leadership -- an open-door policy to engage stakeholders often alienated from past practices. This "fence mending," as Hutchison described his new approach, gives animal rescue organizations and others access to the person who can make things happen.
That welcoming openness also came with vows to tighten licensing enforcement and improve facilities and staffing levels. Hutchison plans to reopen the downtown Bradenton adoption center with volunteer assistance, resume a foster care program and rewrite an agreement with partners who accept animals transferred out of county shelters.
He will also provide more transparent data, the latter being a point of contention with the division's private partners. As such, Animal Services will count euthanasia cases conducted outside its control -- such as a veterinarian who determines a severe injury from a vehicle impact cannot be treated and the animal is put down.
An accurate total will reduce the county's "save rate" but will indisputably reflect the success of the No Kill policy established in 2011.
Back then when county commissioners made Manatee the first in Florida with a No Kill policy, the live-release rate stood at 61 percent. The 90-percent goal set then had been surpassed of late, with a 93-percent mark.
But with the addition of euthanasia cases outside Animal Services, the rate dropped to 88 percent -- still quite an achievement and well above the 2011 mark. This should satisfy the animal rights organizations that expressed discontent with the previously misleading data.
The county's oversight mistakes from Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary in East Manatee appear to be in the past, too, though we'll be hearing more as the animal cruelty cases against owners Alan and Sheree Napier move forward.
With a formal outside audit from a private company coming in October, bigger changes are in the offing. But the "baby steps," as Hutchison described his initial moves, reflect the county's determination to improve Animal Services.
The commitment to expand resources -- with upgrades to facilities and staffing levels -- are pivotal. When commissioners implemented No Kill during lean budget years, they did so with no additional funding.
County Administrator Ed Hunzeker's 2014-2015 budget proposal, to get a final public hearing this week, includes a big boost in the division's budget -- of almost $280,000, reaching $1.82 million. The county has come to realize that Animal Services needs more resources to achieve its mission, and we applaud this action.
A big measure of applause belongs to the private rescues, shelters and other stakeholders who hounded the county about division shortcomings even before the Napier case came to light. Cheers to their voices.
Now we look forward to more positive advances at Animal Services.