Humane Society of the Treasure Coast audit finds contract deficiencies, lack of transparency

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: The Clerk’s audit of the $560,000-a-year contract between Martin County taxpayers and the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast has finally been released.  It is clear why the County delayed the release for more than two months, since the report discloses serious problems with the contract and compliance issues. 


More than half a million taxpayer dollars a year are essentially unaccounted for due to lack of transparency, contractual defects, and lack of oversight.  In fact, at least some funds that are by law supposed to be deposited into an Animal Care Fund by the County have apparently been deposited into the County’s general fund instead.


The auditor confirms that there is a serious lack of transparency regarding the expenditure of taxpayer funds paid to HSTC.  This concern was also expressed by Karel Minor, the Animal Welfare Management Services consultant who made a presentation to the Board of County Commissioners this week about the HSTC contract.


Mr. Minor found that it is impossible for residents to get information about animal intake and disposition or other facts and figures from the HSTC website.  The only way to get information which HSTC is required by law to make available to the public is to make an individual request for records each month and then go out to the HSTC shelter in Palm City and pick up a printout.  This does not meet the intent of the law or the Martin County contract which requires HSTC to comply with public records law provisions.


The Clerk’s auditor recommended that Chapter 9, the Martin County Animal Control Ordinance, be revised.  This, of course, was one of the missions of the Domestic Animal Control Task Force that the Board of County Commissioners dissolved this week.


The audit results should prompt Commissioners who voted to disband the DAC Task Force to ask for reconsideration of that vote at the next meeting.  The auditor’s report presents clear and convincing evidence that the DAC Task Force must be allowed to continue its mission to review and recommend revisions to County animal ordinances as well as policies and contracts related to animal care and control.


The report also makes it clear that it would be fiscally irresponsible to simply renew the expired HSTC contract, even with the insertion of the recommendations of the Task Force.  Those recommendations affect the manner in which services should be performed by HSTC but do not ensure a fiscally sound contract.


The auditor notes that proceeds from the sale of animal licenses collected by HSTC are supposed to be deposited into the County’s “Animal Care Fund”.  This fund could be used to provide low-cost or free spay-neuter services and other animal care services for County residents.  Instead, the County has been depositing these funds into the General Fund and is not ensuring that the funds are being used for animal services.  This is a violation of County law.


The auditor found that while the contract allows the County to audit expenditures of HSTC from taxpayer dollars paid over a period of five years after expiration of the contract, it was impossible to conduct that examination because specific animal sheltering operation expenditures funded by taxpayers are not detailed in the contract, preventing a meaningful audit of those expenditures.  County taxpayers have paid HSTC more than $2 million over the past five years.  It is impossible to determine whether those funds were actually spent in furtherance of contractual animal care services.


The auditor found that there is no accounting for “impound fees” collected by HSTC pursuant to the contract since the County has not received detailed records from HSTC regarding these fees.  “The lack of detailed documentation does not support accountability or transparency of public funds,” the auditor concluded.


The auditor found that the contract does not describe all of the services performed by HSTC and does not include critical provisions that would provide “sufficient detail to support accountability and transparency.”


The auditor found that the HSTC contract language is vague and ambiguous, open to different interpretations that do not allow for adequate monitoring for compliance.  Among the ambiguous provisions that concerned the auditor are provisions requiring submission by HSTC of “monthly financial reports” that do not identify the information that must be contained  in the reports and a requirement for “quarterly reports” to be filed by HSTC to seek reimbursement of a portion of license fees collected.  The quarterly reports are not adequately described and, apparently, have not been provided.  Rather, HSTC submits a one-page invoice each month that provides no detail to allow the County to verify the number of licenses sold or the amount in fees received by the HSTC.


The auditor reviewed 22 “requests for payment” from HSTC and found that in each and every instance, HSTC sought payment prior to completion of the monthly services to be provided.  This is in direct conflict with the requirement of the HSTC contract that no payments are to be made to HSTC until after services are rendered.  The auditor concluded that “paying for services prior to completion thereof does not support good government practices.”


The auditor found that the monthly reports HSTC is required to submit pursuant to the County contract are deficient in content and do not meet the contractual obligations of HSTC.


The auditor found that the County has failed to monitor performance of HSTC pursuant to its contract, and regular contract reviews have never been performed by County staff.


The audit contains seven “opportunities for improvement” and 13 recommendations that should be considered to ensure complaince with the Martin County Code and to provide effective contract oversight.


Martin County Administrators have had the audit report for at least two months in order to make comments in response to the findings of fault.  The County’s comments were submitted to the Clerk last Friday, including a request for still more time to respond to at least one of the recommendations.


The auditor clearly lacked the necessary information to make meaningful determinations as to how HSTC is spending taxpayer dollars.  The County has made no effort to require this information, to monitor contract performance, or to follow our own Animal Control Ordinance.


How can residents be assured that millions of taxpayer dollars are being well spent pursuant to a contract with HSTC which contains so many glaring deficiencies and omissions?  Why is transparency not a priority with either HSTC or the County?  What are they trying to hide?


HSTC and the County owe residents and taxpayers an explanation. 


HSTC and the County owe our animals compassionate, humane care.

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