The Orange County grand jury issued a scathing report Thursday on the county’s old and overcrowded animal shelter, saying the health of animals and people alike are being put at risk while top county officials fail to take leadership on building a new facility.
The 74-year old shelter, which is located next to the Theo Lacy jail in Orange, is in a state of “utter disrepair,” the panel wrote. “Structural integrity, cleanliness, and sanitation continue to be compromised and pose serious risks to human as well as animal health.”
The report placed responsibility for this state of affairs at the feet of top county government officials.
“The grand jury has concluded that the county’s lack of leadership, lack of commitment to animal care, and the prioritization of other [community resources department] functions ahead of Orange County Animal Care are the primary reasons for failure to address the need of new Animal Shelter facilities,” the report said.
To get new shelters built, the grand jury said county officials should dedicate a staff position to oversee their design and construction.
And the 18 cities served by the county shelter cities “need to demand that the County provide them a viable plan with cost and schedule estimates for a new facility,” as well as explore whether to abandon the county system altogether, the report states.
(Click here to read the grand jury report.)
County officials have yet to comment publicly on the report. County spokeswoman Jean Pasco on Thursday deferred to Chairman Todd Spitzer, who didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
Pasco noted that county staff would prepare a written response to the panel’s findings and recommendations and bring it to the Board of Supervisors for approval. Under state law, the county must issue a written response to the grand jury within 90 days.
The report in many ways echoed the concerns of animal advocates, who have long expressed frustration with the lack of progress in replacing the shelter.
“The county has proven with their history that they don’t care about the shelter,” said Rose Tingle, a South County resident who has been outspoken in her critique of county supervisors’ handling of the matter.
“If they really cared about that shelter, they would have at least made some repairs to the shelter, but they didn’t even do that,” added Tingle, who is also on Voice of OC's editorial advisory board.
The shelter was built during World War II to serve a population of about 200,000 residents, but is now responsible for an area home to 2.1 million people, which is roughly two-thirds of the county's population.
This puts Orange County in stark contrast to other California counties, the panel wrote.
“Every California county with a population exceeding 500,000 has more than one animal shelter facility,” the report states. “Orange County is the exception, having one shelter facility despite the geographic and demographic need for multiple shelters.”
Additionally, the aging facility could be in violation of building codes for having structural changes for which there’s no record of a building permit, which could expose the county to legal liability, the report states.
The shelter was built with unreinforced brick, which could collapse in an earthquake, the panel wrote. And a county supervisor told grand jurors that the county “is unable to inspect the roof of the main structure for fear of its collapse.”
The need for a new Orange County shelter has been expressed by grand juries for well over a decade, the report notes, including in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
A glimmer of hope was seen at the former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, where the county has sought to build a shelter on five acres of land it’s slated to acquire in the coming years.
But even with the upcoming land transfer, the county hasn’t taken basic steps toward getting the project off the ground, the grand jury wrote. When the county’s community resources department took over animal care services in 2007, it was given responsibility for coordinating the new shelter’s development.
But to this day, “no preliminary design, schematic plan, or conceptual drawings have been developed by [the department] for presentation to any of the contracting cities or to the [Board of Supervisors],” the report said.
The lack of a plan, in turn, has made it extremely difficult for the cities served by the shelter to commit to help pay for the project. “The county and the 18 cities need to meet and discuss the design elements, but the county has made no attempt to initiate this process,” the report said.
This, among other things, has left Tingle doubtful that the county will change course after the newest report.
“I don’t know if this grand jury report’s gonna do any good, because they’ve had several [reports] in the past,” she said.
Tingle said she’s gotten good responses so far from three city council members across the county and hopes to work with other advocates to advance their mission.
And a coalition called Citizens for Animal Shelter, Orange County has been formed to advocate for new shelters that only euthanize animals if they’re very ill or too aggressive for adoption.
“It’s really up to the cities to take action now,” said Tingle.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of time the county has to respond to the grand jury. The county has 90 days to reply.