Of all the places I would have guessed to hear about the drama surrounding the closing of Jasper County Animal Rescue League, the grand opening of the local Republican party’s new headquarters was not one of them. Yet, Jasper County Supervisor Doug Cupples made a point to mention it during his speech.
If anything, it was a clear indication that JCARL had been on locals’ minds.
It’s also a “touchy” subject, he said, before pointing out JCARL is not owned nor operated by Jasper County, the governing body. And this is true. JCARL is — or, rather, was — an independent, non-profit organization. Regardless, it hasn’t stopped residents from contacting the supervisors demanding action.
But there is nothing the board can do. JCARL is no more. Last month, the organization announced it will close to the public by June 30. In response, the county is currently creating an animal control officer position to respond to calls once covered by JCARL, which contracted with the county to provide services.
However, Cupples made it clear on Monday, June 22, that Jasper County is not opening a shelter for lost or abandoned animals. Instead, the county will collaborate with the Des Moines-based Animal Rescue League of Iowa — which is already helping JCARL with its transition — to house animals.
On Facebook, the organization recently pointed out there are still missing pets in the county. Since JCARL can no longer work on these cases, staff said citizens can report missing animals by calling the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office at 641-792-1547, seemingly until the new county position is hired.
“We’ll do our job with an animal control officer and we’ll wait for an organization that has the right heart and the right place and the right type of business to work with,” Cupples said, noting all three supervisors are “very cautious and concerned about dealing with” this situation.
“The facts will come out eventually,” he added.
Easier said than done.
COVID-19 changes operations, no visitors allowed
Per the June 1 press release detailing the closing, JCARL claimed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic had been “devastating” to the organization. Coupled with a lack of funding, an overcrowded shelter and a deteriorating building, JCARL felt it was in the best interest of the animals to close its doors.
COVID-19 was not kind to JCARL. Staff followed recommendations from public health and national organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Humane Society of the United States of America, the National Animal Care and Control Association, and Best Friends Animal Society.
Regardless, the organization was struggling long before the novel coronavirus pandemic; COVID-19 merely accelerated the shelter’s problems. Visits and tours, which are important in regularly securing pet adoptions, were suspended beginning March 17. All adoptions were handled by appointment only at this time.
However, those appointments were only scheduled when an application for adoption was submitted. These could be found online at www.jcarl.org. According to the website, all applications for new volunteers were suspended. Current volunteers had to follow public health officials’ recommendations.
Owner-surrendered animals were not accepted, “except in cases of extreme emergencies.” Animal control services were limited, too. Donations could still be made online or dropped off in a bin outside the front door of the shelter at 5411 Liberty Ave., Newton. Folks could order items through JCARL’s Amazon wish list.
“We know these are trying times and hope to lift these measures as soon as we possibly can,” JCARL said in an online update about the operational changes. “In the meantime, we can promise you that our shelter residents will continue to be cared for by the same standards we’ve always held ourselves to.”
Unexpected closure, finances take another hit
The closing came as a surprise to former JCARL Director Jennifer Mouchka, who was relinquished from her duties mid-May. She also was not consulted about the closing of JCARL. Mouchka knew JCARL was struggling financially, but she did not know how bad it was.
“We weren’t really given a chance to reach out to the community for help,” she said, noting staff didn’t know of the closing until the Facebook post. “Of course, I’m disappointed. I really don’t want to say a whole lot, don’t want to point fingers. But definitely disappointed. I think we would have had the community support.”
Responses on social media regarding the closure certainly uphold that point. Shirley Chevalier, of Newton, was “shocked” to hear the news, and said so in a June 26 letter to the editor. Chevalier “contributed money over the years” and had adopted from the shelter in the past. These stories are common.
“In a world filled with chaos this comes at a time when we need cheering up not another sad situation,” Chevalier said.
On top of the financial bumps stemming from COVID-19, JCARL needed thousands of dollars of building repairs to its 201,683-square-foot shelter. A confidential source also told Newton News the Internal Revenue Service had put a lien on the building until JCARL’s remaining debt could be paid off.
These were the two main hurdles JCARL faced before COVID-19.
“There was a lack of oversight over the years, a lack of maintaining the building — and it all came crashing down,” the source said.
Effects of closure on county
JCARL’s closing will no doubt have an impact on the county. In fact, it already has. A few weeks after the initial announcement, the Jasper County Board of Supervisors approved the creation of an animal control position. On Tuesday, June 30, the board’s agenda lists a hiring resolution for this job.
Because of the name, people sometimes assume the animal shelter is under the county’s control. Brandon Talsma, chair of the Jasper County Board of Supervisors, affirmed this fact several times during meetings and in a video on his public Facebook page. It’s not a department of the county, he said, nor city.
Jasper County did have a 28E Agreement with JCARL, as did a handful of the municipalities. This allowed the governing bodies to contract JCARL for certain aspects of animal control. Prior to the closure, Talsma said the county paid JCARL to utilize various animal control services for rural residents.
“Whether it’s public drop-off, animal at-large, viscous animal, an animal that has to be quarantined. We utilize their animal control officers and their facility to pick up the animal, house the animal, treat it and everything else,” Talsma said. “I think it was 50-50 whether people called JCARL or called dispatch.”
Either way, JCARL would handle the job, allowing law enforcement to set its focus on other areas. Talsma was aware of JCARL’s financial struggles, which he said has been going on for several years. Some people have asked the county help JCARL, assumedly to pay its debts so it remains operational.
Talsma said the county — and, likely, the cities, too — was not interested in assuming JCARL’s debt. If the county decided to bail out JCARL, Talsma said it would be assumed the entity would bail out other nonprofits, too. Other 501(c)(3) organizations would be treated the same.
If given the chance, JCARL could have survived with help from the community, Mouchka said. If the shelter had been able to reach out to the community and explain what was going on, Mouchka believed — with enough supporters on board — the organization could have received the help it needed.
JCARL also was making changes to better its relationships with communities in the county. The organization had even created a new 28E Agreement to allow for smaller communities to access animal control services. The older 28E Agreement made it difficult for new communities to join in and receive services.
Talsma said the old 28E required new entities to pay past membership dues from the agreement’s inception date in the early ’90s. If a town like Sully, for instance, wanted to come on board in 2019, the city would have to pay a large sum to come onboard. The new 28E got rid of that requirement, and re-adjusted rates.
Jasper County would have a monthly retainer fee of $2,616.55 under the new 28E Agreement, according to county documents.
Uphill battle meets its end
Before the creation of the new 28E Agreement, the county started to schedule meetings with JCARL. Talsma said he and Jasper County Auditor Dennis Parrott held a meeting with the JCARL board and intended to audit the organization, which the county held the right to do in the original 28E Agreement.
“After that meeting with them, it became abundantly clear we weren’t going to find anything in the audit that their board at that time didn’t already know,” Talsma said. “There was a lot of lack of oversight, and it’s not just JCARL’s board’s fault. It’s the county’s fault. It’s the cities’ faults. All the communities faults.”
Why? He said board appointees had not been joining the board “for quite some time.” Board members were appointing their own replacements, or directors were finding people to fill vacant seats, Talsma said. That “is not the way it’s supposed to work.” Altogether, this may have caused “financial strain” for JCARL.
Maybe the new 28E Agreement would have helped. But shortly before a draft could be approved by the board of supervisors, the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on business operations. Elected officials often times held off on approving certain projects not knowing what finances would look like.
“They were facing an uphill battle to begin with,” Talsma said. “But I do think the coronavirus was the final nail in the coffin for ‘em. They weren’t able to do their fundraising and everything else. About 70 percent of their operating funds came from that fundraising effort.”
Newton News reached out to JCARL Board President Kesley Terpstra to elaborate on the organization’s announcement and its “many financial struggles.” However, the board decided it would not make any further public statements.
Terpstra did say she hopes “something bigger and better” comes along to fill JCARL’s role in the county.
“I hope something comes in to our community, I really do. And hopefully this is a lesson learned from the county and the city as another entity comes along or they start something new, that the same mistakes don’t happen. I think a fresh start is really what it needs.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or email@example.com