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Published: Friday, 9/17/2010

<br>Surplus at dog agency slammed by advisory committee

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

For Steve Serchuk, the leader of a citizens' oversight panel of the Lucas County Dog Warden, there are two basic kinds of sins.

He confronted one of them Thursday after opening his morning newspaper. Though Mr. Serchuk had been repeatedly told by county officials that money was tight, The Blade reported how the dog warden department is quietly sitting on a growing surplus of $873,414 in its "dog and kennel fund."

That was news to him and other members of the Lucas County Dog Warden Advisory Committee, who have met almost monthly since March, 2009, to suggest reforms for the department.

"We have sins of commission, when people do things that they shouldn't be doing, and we have sins of omission," said Mr. Serchuk, who is a prominent real-estate broker. "Eight-hundred thousand dollars is a sin of omission."

The chairman wasn't the only committee member irked by the late-coming revelation.

Rob Ludeman, a Republican Toledo City Councilman, said the group could have made even greater strides toward improving the dog warden's operations and kennels if it had known about the cash.

"Had we been made aware of the surplus … we could have made more recommendations to the county commissioners to upgrade that facility and have had them in place by now," Mr. Ludeman said.

County Commissioners Pete Gerken and Tina Skeldon Wozniak and County Administrator Peter Ujvagi, all Democrats, have all said they knew of the fund's surplus. New Dog Warden Julie Lyle said she too was aware of it since her arrival in April.

"If Mr. Gerken knew about the money, and we kept making suggestions about improvements and they kept saying, 'There's no money,' then I guess [that] basically was not telling the truth," Mr. Ludeman said.

"And it also makes me wonder about his interest at the last meeting in disbanding our committee so quickly," Mr. Ludeman added. "In light of the fact there is such a surplus of funds … I think it renews the need of the committee to have some oversight."

Mr. Gerken, president of the board of commissioners, said there was no deliberate attempt to leave anyone in the dark about the fund balance, which is a line item in the dog warden budget and a public record.

The account has grown about $300,000 a year since county commissioners voted in 2007 to raise the annual dog license fee to $25 from $20.

Lucas County dog owners now pay the highest license fee in Ohio.

"It will grow and shrink, and it helps to ensure that the dog warden's operation is fully independently funded and not part of [the county's] general fund," Mr. Gerken said of the surplus balance.

Mr. Gerken said earlier that he supports using some of the surplus for improvements, such as redoing the dog warden's seldom-used auditorium as an adoption wing.

Committee member Dale Emch said he too was irritated that county officials set the group to work without sharing knowledge of the surplus.

He noted how Ms. Lyle stood before the committee in June with a desperate story about rampant illness at the pound and her purported lack of funds to pay for part-time veterinary help through the year.

Not once did she or any other county official mention the swelling surplus.

"We heard all about the dire straits and the problems they were having … and for us to not be told there's this $900,000," Mr. Emch said.

Ms. Lyle said she never intended to lead anyone astray.

"I don't remember who told me, but I've known about [the surplus] right from the get-go," she said. "Nobody's ever asked about it from the committee. They've been in existence since long before I got here."

The surplus was brought to the attention of dog advocates this week by county Commissioner Ben Konop, a Democrat, who himself just learned of it.

George Sarantou, a Toledo City Councilman running to fill Mr. Konop's seat on the board of commissioners, said Thursday at a news conference that he was appalled the information wasn't made known to the citizens' advisory group.

"I know there are voters who are more concerned about jobs and the economy than what is going on at the Lucas County Dog Warden's office, however this single issue underscores the need for more transparency," said Mr. Sarantou, a Republican.

"We found money here. Where else might we find more taxpayer dollars unaccounted for?"

Mr. Serchuk said the committee has learned that if they don't make a specific request for a piece of information, they often won't be told of it.

"At least it's a positive $800,000 and not a negative $800,000," Mr. Serchuk said.

He later added: "I think it's important that we not dwell on how we didn't know about it, but we dwell on what we can do with the money to improve the department."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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