County may settle SUFA litigation

By Steve Estes

A long-standing battle between Monroe County and a former animal control contractor for the Middle Keys may come to an end Wednesday.

On the Monroe Board of County Commissioner’s agenda for Wednesday is the approval of a settlement agreement between the county and Stand Up For Animals that should put to rest a multi-year legal battle that started with an argument over the cost of animal control and ended with Stand Up For Animals walking away from the county contract.

That was all followed by accusations of poor practices by SUFA concerning its financial record keeping, the county attempting to freeze assets of the contractor, being forced to relinquish that freeze, and dragging out a court fight for several years to try and recoup what county officials claimed was money owed the taxpayer by SUFA.

For Wednesday’s action, the county attorney is suggesting that Monroe County cough up $45,000 in payments to the ousted organization, $8,000 of which will be reimbursed by auditor Paul Mills.

Assistant County Attorney Christine Limbert-Barrows says in her agenda notice that the settlement agreement will resolve all outstanding issues between Monroe County and SUFA, (former SUFA Director) Linda Gottwald and the individual directors of SUFA.

Mills will pay the county $8,000 and will perform no more audits under county contract until he meets certain conditions.

“The net cost to the county will be $37,000, which is substantially less than the county’s actual cost of further litigating this case and taking it to trial,” wrote Barrows. “Even if the county were to prevail on all of its claims at trial, it may be difficult to collect on a judgment against SUFA and Linda Gottwald.”

The disagreement started when the county sought new proposals for animal control services in the Middle Keys, covering the area from about mile marker 16 to 61.

SUFA asked for a stiff increase in funding of nearly 20 percent to continue the services, claiming that costs to maintain the Big Pine part-time shelter and increased costs for its no-kill status needed to be covered.

County officials maintained that SUFA had overcharged patrons at the shelter and hadn’t returned that money to the county under contractual obligations, and that county money paid to SUFA to be used for animal control had been diverted to cover personal expenses for SUFA staff. County officials also claimed that money paid here had been diverted into the establishment of a second Stand Up For Animals facility in Michigan.

After agreeing to stay in place for an extended month-to-month contract, SUFA pulled out of the animal control business, leaving the Florida Keys SPCA to cover the services until a new request for proposals package was completed and a new contractor in place.

Safe Harbor Animal Rescue of the Keys eventually won the contract for Middle Keys animal control services, operates specifically out of the Marathon shelter and closed the Big Pine Key facility.

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