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Audit criticizes L.A.'s Animal Services department

Los Angeles' Department of Animal Services is an unruly place where equipment is unaccounted for, at least $125,000 is missing and up to $1.3 million in potential revenue was overlooked over the last two fiscal years, a city audit has found.

February 16, 2012|By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tours a city animal shelter in 2010, when he appointed a new director, Brenda Barnette. The Animal Services department has been embattled.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tours a city animal shelter in 2010, when… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)

The Department of Animal Services has become an unruly place where equipment is unaccounted for, at least $125,000 is missing and up to $1.3 million in potential revenue was overlooked over the last two fiscal years, a new report has found.

The audit, conducted over two years and released Tuesday, describes policy and possible ethics breakdowns across the agency, with particular focus on poor supervision and management.

In one example, department officials could not show investigators whether donations were spent legitimately. Cash donations to some shelters were also "treated as petty cash for both animal and staff purposes," according to the audit.

"The department has been plagued by lax controls and a lack of continuity in management, creating an environment with the potential to jeopardize animal safety," said Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel, a mayoral candidate who wrote the report.

"Abuses at every level led me to conduct this audit.... Additional action is needed to strengthen critical internal controls at the city's animal shelters," Greuel said.

The city requires that dogs and cats adopted from its shelters have microchips implanted for a fee, and existing owners can also pay to have microchips implanted, but the shelters often do not account for them.

"Our analyses of the revenue that should have been generated based on the number of microchips recorded … in comparison to amounts generated, shows a $125,000 discrepancy. The shelters were unable to explain," the audit said.

The department also failed to bill all dog owners in its database for annual fees and instead billed only owners who had paid the previous year, the investigation found. Those who didn't were dropped from future billings, resulting in fewer renewal licenses.

During the last fiscal year, as many as 171,202 dogs needed license renewals, but bills potentially went out to only 107,375 owners, according to the audit, meaning the department could have missed out on about $1.3 million in revenue in two years.

There were several other examples in the report critical of the department's supervision and management, including an instance in which investigators asked for a quick equipment inventory at the shelters and 12 cameras and 11 radios were missing.

Another time, Animal Services "management removed guns and ammunition from shelters, apparently due to lax controls," according to the report.

The findings come at what city officials hope is a turning point for a struggling department plagued by repeated allegations of high-profile missteps, including firing a veterinary technician in December who had subjected dogs to inhumane treatment.

The agency also placed several employees on leave last year during a probe into time card fraud and has investigated whether some employees stole dogs from a shelter in Lincoln Heights to sell for profit.

At a news conference announcing the audit's findings, Councilman Dennis Zine said issues with the Animal Services department were a "continuing saga."

"It's really sad that a department that has had such problems over a long period of time continues to struggle," Zine said.

Victor M. Gordo, secretary-treasurer for the Laborers International Union of North America Local 777, which represents first- and second-line supervisors at Animal Services, said that he embraced the audit and that the problems are mostly a result of bad management.

"The employees and supervisors of Animal Services have urged management and the mayor to better manage the department," Gordo said. "It is unfortunate the people doing the day-to-day work ... have been ignored."

"It is our hope the controller's audit will finally move Ms. Barnette and the mayor to do what we have said all along needs to be done: better manage the Department of Animal Services," Gordo said.

City officials said Tuesday that Brenda Barnette, general manager of the department since 2010, was working cooperatively to implement changes and that they were confident she could lead the agency in a new direction.

Barnette did not immediately return a call for comment.

Within the audit are some examples of progress, including strengthening oversight of payroll and timekeeping and a new campaign encouraging residents to get their dogs licensed.

"We finally have the right leadership in place," Councilman Paul Koretz said.

"Greuel has set out the blueprint for Brenda and the department," he said. "I trust she will make it happen."

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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