Though Lucas County officials have for months pleaded poverty in resisting calls for improvements to the dog warden's kennels and operations, records obtained by The Blade show the department sitting on a fast-rising surplus of nearly $900,000.
Fueled by proceeds from the county's $25 dog license fee - the highest in Ohio - the warden's "dog-and-kennel fund" has grown about $300,000 annually since 2008, reaching $873,414 this year.
State law requires that this money go to dog warden-related uses, yet it continues to pile up unspent despite repeated requests by dog advocates for better veterinary care, larger cages, and increased hours for the public.
Local activists and at least one county commissioner were unaware of the kennel fund's surplus until this week. Those in county government who did know about the balance didn't broadcast the fact.
"It infuriates me that we've had it all this time and the money has just been sitting there," said Jean Keating, co-founder of the Ohio Coalition of Dog Advocates and a member of the county's Dog Warden Advisory Committee.
Tamara Ernst, co-founder of 4 Lucas County Pets and an outspoken critic of past operations at the dog warden's office, learned of the surplus Wednesday.
She said she was "livid" that former Dog Warden Tom Skeldon had claimed dire financial need three years ago when asking commissioners to raise the dog-license fee to $25 from $20. The dog warden's office sells nearly 163,000 licenses a year.
Records show the fund with a $222,239 balance during the year that Mr. Skeldon requested the fee hike in 2007.
"Why did we raise the kennel fee to begin with if we already had a surplus sitting there?" Ms. Keating asked Wednesday.
As they approved the increase in August, 2007, commissioners said they would mull reopening a dog park at the Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee as a trade-off to dog owners. The park has stayed closed.
County Commissioner Ben Konop said he just learned of the surplus this week. In a statement, he criticized County Administrator Peter Ujvagi and his two board colleagues for their past statements indicating that money was too tight to make improvements at the pound.
Mr. Konop also made a formal request that Dog Warden Julie Lyle "develop and implement a comprehensive plan to utilize the swelling reserve fund."
"This swelling surplus in conjunction with the continuing rate of euthanasia is an unconscionable misuse of taxpayer revenue, and a prime example of how county government is broken," Mr. Konop said.
The commissioner suggested that Ms. Lyle could raise her adoption rate by hiring an adoption outreach coordinator. She also could buy modern cages, build an on-site veterinarian suite, purchase computer software for improved tracking of impounded dogs, and increase the department's public hours.
"If there are excess funds available after implementing such steps, then we owe it to the taxpayers to re-evaluate the license fee," Mr. Konop said.
In an interview, Ms. Lyle said she has begun working on ways to use the surplus to benefit dogs. She said she plans to ask commissioners as early as Tuesday for permission to seek bids on a project that would transform the pound's little-used auditorium into an adoption wing. The current adoption area is too small to show large dogs.
Ms. Lyle also hopes to have a surgical suite with a full-time veterinarian in place by next summer. And to improve health conditions, she has plans to install temporary holding pens so that dogs wouldn't enter the main kennel before receiving vaccinations.
"It's great that it's there and it's great that we'll be able to use it," Ms. Lyle said of the surplus.
Commissioner Pete Gerken said he was aware of the kennel fund surplus, which eliminates the need to raise license fees in the future. He said he will support Ms. Lyle's request to move forward with the new adoption area.
"The fund shouldn't be a surprise to anybody - it's a line-item account," Mr. Gerken said. "We use it to offset rising costs, and I hope it lets us go longer between raising dog license fees."
Fellow Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she also anticipates supporting Ms. Lyle's request next week to spend money on an improved adoption area.
Mr. Ujvagi did not return phone messages seeking comment.
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