Yuba City balking at Sutter County animal shelter plan
Plans to build a new regional animal shelter — and to transfer authority from Sutter County to Yuba City — are in limbo over legal questions about the existing shelter staff.
The concerns include "a number of workers compensation issues and two employees with complaints lodged against them for animal cruelty," according to a statement by City Manager Steve Jepsen and quoted in subsequent attorneys' missives.
On Thursday, a four-page letter from Jepsen to the Sutter Animal Services Authority accused the county of failing to fully disclose "the extent of employee issues" at the animal shelter on Second Street in Yuba City.
The letter was in response to a letter from the county's attorney that was deemed "confidential" and not made available to the Appeal-Democrat.
In his letter, Jepsen contended "mutual trust appears to be an ongoing problem between Yuba City and Sutter County."
A joint operating agreement in which members of the authority — Sutter County, Yuba City and Live Oak — have functioned since 2011 calls for Yuba City to assume responsibility for all operations of the new facility once it is completed.
"The agreement calls for the city to take charge and be the employer of record," Sutter County spokesman Chuck Smith said on Thursday. "We're hopeful that that will happen."
Yuba City and Live Oak contracted their animal control services through the county shelter prior to the formation of the authority last year. Yuba City accounts for 65-70 percent of the shelter's service calls and is slated to pay for the majority the new facility's construction costs.
Smith would not disclose details related to specific employees and their qualifications, complaints against them or worker compensation claims.
Jepsen, in his letter, said he was "shocked to learn, and am seriously concerned" that the county didn't discuss with its shelter employees "the likelihood of substantive changes in their employment wages and benefits" prior to approving the joint powers agreement.
Construction of the new facility off Garden Highway is slated to begin in the next few weeks.
County and city lawyers are embroiled in the staffing dispute.
Jepsen, in a telephone interview Thursday, said he was under the impression that findings in a 2011 grand jury report about the animal shelter were overblown.
The report featured gruesome details of mismanagement and a lack of appropriate care for animals housed in the existing shelter facility.
Conditions at the overcrowded shelter undoubtedly grew worse during seven years of unfruitful talks about a new facility, according to former grand jury members.
Their document included results of an inspection by renowned UC Davis veterinarian Kate Hurley, who has since been hired by the authority to help plan for the transition to a new facility.
"They'd been misrepresented to us," Jepsen said of Hurley's findings. "They (county officials) convinced us that what the grand jury said was not correct."
Jepsen said he was made aware of the full extent of shelter management and staff problems by way of recent logistics meetings and a confidential letter from the county's attorney.
"Yuba City now shares the opinion provided by Dr. Hurley," reads Jepsen's letter sent Thursday to members of the authority. "Without significant staffing and/or management changes, the animal services program will ultimately fail despite moving into a new $5 million facility."
The joint powers agreement, now more than a year old, included a "side letter" addendum stating that shelter employees will become city employees when Yuba City takes over operations of animal control services.
Jepsen said he signed off on that without receiving all the facts.
Information regarding staffing at the existing facility, his letter reads, "was either withheld or disregarded."
Smith, in an email to the Appeal-Democrat, said Jepsen's remarks were "unfounded."
"It has been a long and bumpy road to a resolution of the animal services issues, but Sutter County believes nothing has changed from what has been approved by the three member jurisdictions of the JPA," Smith's statement said.
Jepsen said transfer of county shelter staff onto the city's employment rolls "is a serious issue and a legal issue."
"I have as much time invested in this as anybody, and I want this to succeed," he said. "But would you buy a car without a motor in it?"
The authority is scheduled to Monday at 1 p.m. at 466 Second St., Yuba City.