Darrell Berkheimer: Shelter has been huge bargain for the county | TheUnion.com

Darrell Berkheimer: Shelter has been huge bargain for the county

Darrell Berkheimer
Columnist

It's time for Nevada County's elected leaders to realize just how much of a bargain they are getting as a result of Sammie's Friends operation of the county's animal shelter. And if they haven't been listening, thousands of Sammie's Friends are willing to tell them.

That support became obvious after Sammie's Friends notified the county it is being forced to reduce its annual subsidy to the shelter, from $379,000 to $282,000.

Sammie's Friends has operated the shelter for eight years, first with a 3-year contract and then a 5-year contract. The county has extended its contract for only one year.

During the past eight years, Sammie's Friends has turned the shelter into the envy of animal services throughout the state as a result of the no-kill policy it has established. It reversed the situation from a 68 percent kill rate to less than 1 percent while providing shelter services to between 1,800 and 2,000 animals each year.

The main reason the nonprofit organization is being forced to reduce its shelter subsidy will result from the planned retirement of the shelter's manager and co-manager. Sammie's Friends pays annual salaries of only $16,080 to both director Cheryl Wicks and co-manager Curt Romander for a yearly management expense of only $32,160.

How many folks do you know who are willing to work 40 to 60 hours per week for only $16,000 a year? And with no benefits!

Recommended Stories For You

Wicks and Romander, at ages 71 and 74, respectively, are looking to wind down their activities and take some vacations that they haven't had for the past 10 years — as they provided labors of love at the shelter on behalf of Sammie's Friends.

As a result, Sammie's Friends is proposing to hire a director for $85,000, plus a co-manager for $65,000 to also fulfill the many chores handled by Romander. He provides systems maintenance, financial accounting, grant writing, information technology and the data base to meet various regulations.

For comparison purposes, the managers at two other shelters in this region — at Truckee and Alameda —are paid about $95,000 annually, plus benefits. And both provide shelter services to only about half as many animals each year as the 1800 to 2,000 served by Sammie's Friends.

This year's total shelter expenses are projected at $879,600, with $500,600 coming from the county, thus the $379,000 from Sammie's Friends. But next year's proposed budget is estimated at $1,147,200 as a result of rising costs and other expenses the county must assimilate.

For example, Sammie's Friends has been financing the medical services for shelter animals — to the tune of an estimated $270,900 this year. Sammie's Friends is calling for the county to pay $47,000 of that expense because it's a service required by state law.

Additional expenses also result from vehicle operations and expanded shelter hours. When Sammie's Friends began operating the shelter in 2010, no vehicles were made available. The only vehicles used before then were assigned to animal control officers who operated the shelter only four hours each day — from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m.

Under Sammie's Friends, the shelter is open nine hours each day — 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday — with adoption services between noon and 4 p.m.

To fill the need for shelter vehicles, Wicks and Romander donated the use of his truck and her car. Those expenses also will need to be covered by the county; and the cost for insurance, registrations, maintenance and fuel for two vehicles is not cheap.

But it is the local no-kill service that is not only admired statewide, but even nationally, according to a publication by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. Sammie's Friends reported it was forced to euthanize only 15 animals during the past two years. Twelve were either too sick or too injured while the other three had become too dangerous as a result of attacks.

That no-kill policy, however, as great as it is, has an unintended consequence. It creates more difficulty in arranging rescues for older and larger animals, sometimes with health issues, who are not as adoptable. When known rescue individuals and groups are contacted by Sammie's Friends, they often refuse, explaining they prefer to rescue an animal from a shelter that kills many of its animals rather than one with a no-kill policy.

These various issues explain why Nevada County has been getting one of the best operations at a substantial bargain — one that can't be maintained without the county assuming more of the costs.

So for next year, Sammie's Friends is projecting the county's "contract" share must jump to $743,000 in order to meet the proposed budget of nearly $1.15 million. That's an increase of $386,300 more than the $356,700 provided under the existing contract.

It remains a bargain as Sammie's Friends will continue to provide a subsidy of $282,000. That money comes from donations, fundraising events and Sammie's Friends Thrift Shop. (The remaining $121,500 in the budget includes money from a trust fund and anticipated service fees.)

The county faces a choice of continuing to provide a shelter that is the envy of others at slightly less of a bargain, or cutting services, going back to killing animals, and losing the Sammie's Friends subsidy.

So our community needs to continue to let the county know what type of shelter is needed and wanted. Many already have strongly voiced their support for a continuation of the current operation — at an open meeting, a citizens' march, numerous letters to the editor, plus 65,000 visits to Sammie's Friends Facebook page.

It's a choice of either more support through county taxes or more citizen support directly to Sammie's Friends.

The county has been getting the best for too cheaply for several years. Sammie's Friends supporters maintain it will continue to be a bargain. And when do any of us recall the best being one of the cheapest?

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He is the author of five books available through Amazon. Contact him at mtmrnut@yahoo.com.