For her 11th birthday, quickly approaching on Sept. 26, Evelyn Harbeson of Ellendale said she just wanted one thing.

For her 11th birthday, quickly approaching on Sept. 26, Evelyn Harbeson of Ellendale said she just wanted one thing.

“I wanted a dog for my birthday,” Evelyn said as she petted and kissed her newly adopted pit bill mix, Jase, at Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary. “And I got one.”

Safe Haven was dealt a harsh blow July 30 when the Kent County Levy Court voted to cancel its more than $868,000 dog control contract with the already financially crippled shelter, which identified that contract as its sole source of income.

Now facing a very uncertain future, Safe Haven board of directors member Rita Hughes says the organization’s main focus at this time now is to find homes for its more than 170 dogs, which are either housed at the Georgetown shelter or at one of three private kennels in Kent and Sussex counties.

“We’re going to make a gallant effort to stay open,” Hughes said on Friday. “Once the contract is over, we won’t be taking in any more dogs from Kent County, so we can start working as an actual sanctuary. We’ll be taking in only Sussex County dogs, if we continue to stay open.”

History of Safe Haven

According to a letter written by the shelter’s board of directors and published in the Sussex Countian in May 2010, Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary of Sussex County Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a no-kill environment for abandoned and abused cats and dogs in Sussex County, was formed in 2004. In 2005, the group purchased 13 acres of undeveloped land off Shingle Point Road between Georgetown and Milton. The group then spent six years clearing and preparing the land, creating and refining its engineering plans, raising funds and obtaining permits.

Construction on the Safe Haven Sanctuary, a 19,500-square-foot LEED certified facility, began in 2008. It was estimated at the time that the total cost of the facility was $4 million, heavily donated by community supporters and partially funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan. The facility, able to house 400 dogs and cats, offered a cage-free, indoor living environment.

The Safe Haven team dreamt big, having plans to start a Pet Food Pantry that would assist struggling pet owners to feed their animals, a Life Preserver Dog Program that would transport animals from the Kent County SPCA into Safe Haven’s no-kill community, emergency medical care services for treatment of disease or injury, and a spay and neuter program to help cover the cost of these procedures for financially strapped families. Of course they also had their eye on the Kent County and Sussex County dog control contracts, held at the time by the Kent County SPCA.

Safe Haven began moving animals into its facility in April 2012, and secured contracts with various local private kennels to house the influx of dogs it began to experience.

Dog control contract

Also in April 2012, the Kent County SPCA, which held Kent County’s dog control contract, requested more funds to meet rising costs associated with the state Companion Animal Protection Act of 2010, which required vaccinations and veterinary care for all animals taken in. Its request for a $1.3 million contract for 2013 was nearly 50 percent more than the amount Kent County Levy Court had budgeted for animal control.

Negotiations between the SPCA and the county ensued, but a compromise could not be reached. Safe Haven was willing to perform dog control for what the county had budgeted, and took over the contract on July 1, 2012, the first day of Kent County’s fiscal year.

Safe Haven also submitted a bid for Sussex County’s dog control contract, but that contract was awarded to Kent County SPCA, which submitted a lower bid and had held the contract for three years.

One year later, Safe Haven was awarded a new contract with Kent County for fiscal year 2013. But within one month of renewing the Kent County dog control contract, Rick Kirchhoff, the former president of the Safe Haven board of directors, told Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange the shelter was closing. Petit de Mange said he had a “frank and open” discussion with Kirchhoff on July 20 regarding termination of the dog control contract.

“There was an anticipation at that point in time that the county would be receiving written notification of termination [from Safe Haven] by the following Wednesday or thereabouts,” Petit de Mange said at a July 30 special meeting between the Kent County Levy Court and representatives from Safe Haven. “However on July 23, we were notified by a member of the news media that they had learned the Safe Haven board had entertained a new vote perhaps and decided not to terminate the contract and not to close.”

According to Hughes, three board members had resigned, one due to illness and two in protest of the decision to remain open. Since the Levy Court meeting, board member Sharon Donovan has also resigned. Hughes said two new board members have been brought in, for a total of five. She declined to comment further on the status of the board.

During the Levy Court meeting, Hughes, her husband and five-year Safe Haven volunteer Dave Hughes, and current board president Lois Fargo pleaded their case to the commissioners, laying out a plan to keep its doors open and continue providing dog control for Kent County. The shelter faces significant financial uncertainly, mostly centered on Safe Haven’s debt, which shelter officials estimate to be more than $200,000. Commissioners also questioned whether a no-kill shelter can provide dog control. Rita Hughes said the dogs would be easier to adopt out if almost all of them weren’t pit bulls, which she said have an unfounded bad reputation.

Despite their efforts, the Safe Haven board lost its contract that night with a 5-2 vote from the commissioners.

“I think your problem is your business model. It doesn’t work. It’s not going to work,” said Commissioner Eric Buckson. “The numbers don’t lie. It’s going to constantly be a problem and you can’t plan a budget around what you hope to have come in.”

Petit de Mange said after the meeting that negotiations would begin immediately with the Kent County SPCA to pick up the county’s dog control. A decision has yet to be made on that front.

According to Kia Evans, spokeswoman for the Levy Court, a letter notifying Safe Haven of the termination of its contract with Kent County was hand delivered to the Georgetown shelter on Aug. 2 by the Kent County Sheriff’s Office. Safe Haven will continue to provide dog control services until 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 1, when the contract will cease.

Financial status

As of the July 30 meeting with the Levy Court, Safe Haven officials did not have a concrete number to define its total debt, apart from the estimated $200,000.

Dave Hughes told the commissioners negotiations with creditors to determine payment plans on all outstanding balances will begin immediately.

“We have had pretty good relationships with these folks and we anticipate they will continue to be reasonable, and we’re going to be reasonable,” Hughes said. “We’re not trying to low ball them or anything like that. We’re actually trying to get them paid their full amount at some point so they don’t come up a loser in all of this.”

In a financial statement provided to the commissioners, Safe Haven estimated its monthly expenses to be around $24,400. This includes payments to its lenders, utility providers, and veterinarian, among others. It does not, however, include any past due debt, such as payments owed to private kennels that still house Safe Haven dogs. Total payroll, including dog control staff, was estimated at more than $39,600, with an additional $3,600 for payroll taxes. All those expenses total about $67,700.

The only income listed in the report was the monthly payment of about $72,400 for the Kent County dog control contract, theoretically leaving Safe Haven almost $4,700 in net income.

Dave Hughes did say the shelter receives adoption fees, but they aren’t reliable. Also, as it stands, Safe Haven is waiving all of its adoptions fees in an effort to house its dogs.

Each year, however, Safe Haven receives a $50,000 grant from a private donor. That grant is released in February. The shelter will also receive two more payments of $72,400 from Kent County before the contract ends.

Rita Hughes said Safe Haven is seeking support from the community and during the course of just one day last week, the shelter received about $650 in donations.

Staffing issues

In an effort to save money, Safe Haven laid off five of its employees on July 19. An additional seven, including the interim executive director and veterinary technician, left Safe Haven the following weekend.

Dave Hughes said Cindy Woods, the former interim executive director who could not be reached for comment, fired these employees on July 27, under the auspices they would receive unemployment benefits. Hughes said Woods quit the next day. He said some of those fired employees have returned.

In the Levy Court meeting, Rita Hughes said there were six people on Safe Haven’s staff. On Monday, she said two new employees had been hired and the shelter is in the process of hiring two more.

Former board member Bob Burakiewicz has been appointed interim executive director. The shelter is currently utilizing the services of Michael Junck, doctor of veterinary medicine, on a per diem basis.

Woods was appointed interim executive director in February after Safe Haven fired Anne Gryczon, its first executive director. Gryczon was fired in light of accusations from former and current volunteers regarding mismanagement and animal mistreatment.

During the early morning hours of July 28, the day she quit Safe Haven, Woods reportedly moved the shelter’s 87 cats to Josie’s Place Cat Rescue in Millsboro. According to Safe Haven representatives, Woods did this without the knowledge or consent of the board. Dave Hughes said police officers were sent to Woods’ house to investigate the cats’ disappearance, and Woods refused to disclose their locations, stating what she did was legal, as she was acting director of the shelter at the time. Hughes confirmed the act was, technically, legal.

Josie’s Place posted a statement on its website regarding the cats.

“We did not want money or publicity, but simply wanted to ensure that the 87 cats at Safe Haven would have a future, and not have to worry about their safety,” the statement reads. “As of July 31, 2013, all of the cats from Safe Haven have been fixed, are up to date on their vaccinations and have been combo tested.”

Josie’s Place also stated that it had initially agreed to take 12 of Safe Haven’s cats and was not aware of any plan to remove all of the cats. However, when Josie’s Place learned the cats were being moved, it agreed to take them in.

Moving forward

Dave Hughes said the plan in moving forward is to ramp up adoption and fundraising efforts. Throughout the first six months of this year, he said, Safe Haven has adopted out or transferred 322 dogs.

“We’re becoming more familiar with who is out there and able to help us,” he said. “Our adoption group has really ramped up their abilities. They’ve learned how to better present the dogs and they’ve done a much better job of getting the dogs adopted out of our shelter.”

Hughes added that Safe Haven’s financial struggles have been the result of unexpected medical and private kennel costs associated with its dogs.

As Safe Haven continues to adopt out its dogs, Hughes said any dogs left in private kennels will be moved to the Georgetown facility, which will greatly reduce the shelter’s costs. He also said a medical panel has been formed to make decisions regarding costly procedures and care.

Finally, Safe Haven is relying heavily on volunteers and donations from the community. To help, call (302) 856-6460.

Gatehouse Media Delaware reporters Jeff Brown, Sarah Barban, Scott Goss and Christine Miller, as well as News Editor Jennifer Hayes contributed to this report.