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After the Storm:Humane Society of Redmond works to repair reputation, debt situation 

At a Deschutes County Board of Commissioners work session on July 9, the true financial problems of the Humane Society of Redmond came to light.

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At a Deschutes County Board of Commissioners work session on July 9, the true financial problems of the Humane Society of Redmond came to light. There was, of course, already plenty known about the monetary crisis the animal shelter had found itself in by this point, but the public was nonetheless surprised when board members told county commissioners that they had no other option but to close the facility...unless they could strike a deal with the county.

Since then, the county has floated the humane society more than $41,000 to keep its doors open and is discussing the possibility of loaning the shelter almost $1 million to keep the organization afloat. Call it a hometown bailout.

The initial meeting with the county came only a matter of days after the executive director of the Humane Society of Redmond, Jamie Kanski, said she was asked by HSR board members to resign in the wake of making the shelter's financial woes public. Fast forward to mid-September when the shelter announced that their current debt was in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. Just days later, HSR board president Dale Gilbert stepped down from his position amid criticism from HSR members.

These are the flash points of the long and winding saga that is the much-troubled story of the Humane Society of Redmond. In between the lines are stories of long-lasting financial and organizational mishaps, some downright bad luck, all of which is peppered with infighting between shelter members, board members and staff. Also lost in the shuffle is a focus on the programs and staff positions that were cut as a result of significant budgetary cuts.

But it's important to note, as new HSR board president Dr. Rachel Oxley, a Redmond-based veterinarian, notes that the shelter is indeed open today, and there is certainly hope for a shelter that some had come to think of as a lost cause.

"There has definitely been a focus on people rather than the animals, and I'm really hoping and have been working on bringing the focus back to where it should be," Oxley said.

She went on to say that the board is currently in the middle of several efforts aimed at not only reestablishing a sense of organizational structure to the HSR, but also rebuilding some trust from the community that has been lost as a result of the financial shortcomings.

 


What happened?

So, how did an animal shelter in a city the size of Redmond find itself mired in more than a million dollars in debt? For the answer, one need not look past the HSR facility, which was completed in January of 2005 and to this day, the construction costs make up for a significant share of the shelter's debt. The facility more than doubled the size of the HSR and included an events center that is intended to be rented out to the community as means for additional revenue.

County Commissioner Mike Daly, whose wife is actually a former board member of the HSR, said that the building was constructed with the understanding that money from a trust could be used to pay off some of the construction debt. The problem is that the trust, which is set to benefit humane societies in Bend and Redmond, consists of two real estate assets, one of which is a plot of undeveloped land that once sold would be turned into cash split between the HSR and the Bend-based Humane Society of Central Oregon.

"Based on the money that should have come out of that estate, they built a new shelter," Daly said. "I think what happened was that they kind of put all their eggs in one basket with the estate and now I think everyone realized you don't spend money before you get it."

Kanski, who served as executive director until late June of this year, said that the management of the trust certainly hasn't worked in favor of the HSR. She said that in September of 2007 the piece of land in question was valued at about $4 million - and is now worth much less. While Kanski admits that money from the trust isn't a long-term plan for sustaining the shelter, she insists, and city and county officials agree, that the cash would certainly be invaluable in alleviating some of the shelter's debt.

Others insist that the financial problems extend far beyond the trust. Pat McGuinness is involved with a loosely organized group of HSR members working under the name Save Our Shelter (SOS). She and fellow SOS members state that while the trust is important to the shelter's economic standing, there were other shortcomings within the HSR board that certainly didn't help HSR get into the black. One of the most identifiable factors was the shelter's struggle to raise funds from its members and others in the community.

In the aforementioned July 9 county work session, Gilbert, who was then board president, admitted to the commissioners that the HSR has historically been ineffective in its fundraising efforts. In the minutes of the work session, Gilbert is paraphrased as saying that part of the reason for this shortcoming was because the current and past HSR boards were not skilled in marketing and fundraising.

Kanski said that the HSR had been working on fundraising continually, but with little tangible result. A late-March fundraising event at the shelter was cancelled after it appeared that it wouldn't be financially successful in the end. Kanski said that was partially because the shelter, which by that time had undergone significant staffing cuts, didn't have the resources to publicize or sell tickets for the event. But there's also some simple bad luck at play as Kanski said integral fundraising efforts for the new facility were hampered because after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the shelter saw far fewer donations - which was common for many non-profits during that time.

While fundraising is often important for a non-profit organization like a humane society, some SOS members say that the friction between the board and certain members certainly hindered fundraising efforts.

"You can't raise money from people who don't like what you're doing," said SOS member Steve Kessler, who has recently submitted an application to be added to the HSR board.

The debt is real, and it's a real problem. But the formation of this massive debt is also a point of curiosity and contention.

"I am surprised that they have been running in the red for so many years at such a high level," said Redmond Mayor Alan Unger.

Unger is nonetheless optimistic about the future of the HSR and said that the city of Redmond has worked alongside the county in keeping the shelter open. Still he, like so many others, has questions.

"There must have been a disconnect otherwise I can't see how it could have happened," he said.

The most illustrative example of this disconnect between the board, staff, and HSR members was at the July 9 county work session when Gilbert revealed the $25,000 in credit card debt, which he said the board didn't know about.

Kanski, however, said she never hid financial information from the board.

"I was crushed to start with when [Gilbert] asked me to resign, but to have him go in front of the media and the county and just give information that was not true-that was tough," Kanski said.

A balance sheet dated January 31 of this year that Kanski said was given to both Gilbert and herself shows outstanding credit card debt totaling more than $21,000. Gilbert said that he didn't see that statement - which he said is indicative of how the shelter was being run at that time.

"The board wasn't receiving that financial display in a timely manner," Gilbert said.

What Now?

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While the Humane Society of Redmond has been soaked in bad publicity for months now, the shelter is hardly shutting its doors and its board members and volunteers don't seem at all willing to fold. And there is reason for optimism, as evidenced by Commissioner Daly's comments on the future of the shelter.

"I'm not too worried, even if the county loaned them some money. It's just going to take some time. We've got a tentative plan and a lot of things need to fall into place," Daly said, "We've got a lot of folks working on this full-time and we're probably going to come out just fine."

Neither he nor Dr. Oxley elaborated on the "tentative plan" the county has in the works, but both acknowledged that there is indeed a plan on the horizon. Daly hinted that details could be announced as early as next week. He also went on to explain that, at the end of the day, it's the county's responsibility to provide animal care and he has a hard time ever seeing the county letting the doors of the HSR close for good.

Unger is also supportive of the county stepping in.

"I personally would like to see the county say 'OK we will take over the assets, and we'll set the humane society up with a minimum rent,'" said Unger.

The news of county aid is comfort to those who may have heard the rumor that Redmond may be merging with HSCO. Across the board, those involved thought a merger would be problematic, putting far too much strain on the Bend shelter.

"It was one of those options that was thrown out there, but neither Bend nor Redmond want to see that happen," Oxley said.

She, along with Kanski, said there is little reality in a future merger of the two shelters.

Another ongoing signal of change at the shelter is the current movement to add more members to the board, which has no set number of seats and can accommodate as many as 15 members. Oxley sees this as a sign of confidence on behalf of the HSR members.

"We honestly have more applications than spaces we have on the board. It's very positive and I'm truly hoping that everyone: staff, current board, SOS, community and city can all learn from this and concentrate on where we need to go now," Oxley said.

Even Gilbert, although having resigned from the board amidst criticism from HSR members, still plans to support the shelter.

"There is a confidence issue in the community right now that has to be healed and I think that it is taking place, but it's something that doesn't happen overnight. People want to see positive changes," Gilbert said.

McGuinnes has been critical of the current board in the past, but also shares a sentiment of putting some of the nastiness behind her and the rest of the SOS group.

"I feel that some of the people on the current board are nice people, but it's time for a change to regain the trust of the community in this shelter," she said.

Kanski also exuded some confidence in a new board, as well as the new board's president in creating a repaired image for the HSR.

"Out of all of our board members, Rachel was very close to all of our staff. She was the only one who would follow through on her duties as a board member," Kanski said.

Oxley outlined a number of efforts that the shelter is currently organizing to revamp both its image and coffers. She listed off a string of committees the board is in the process of creating that would oversee previously neglected areas like communication with members, membership, recruiting, and of course fundraising.

"There's so many people that just want to get this working. We need to salvage the reputation," said Oxley.

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