Animal Control is Not Always a Public Hot Button
by Jack Mayne
There is nothing better to stir up a local controversy than to discuss how animals are controlled and treated by governments because no matter what is done, some will say it is a foul deed to the animals by heartless bureaucrats and officials will rebuff the naysayers by saying charges are overblown and changes would cost a lot of money.
Take Burien as one example. Two years ago, City Manager Mike Martin proposed to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars by dumping animal control by King County and replacing it with a locally-created non-profit organization, called the Community Animal Resource and Education Society, or CARES for short. Local activist Debra George would run the group and the non-profit would get $110,000 per year for all animal control and care. The contract runs through April of 2014.
The reaction was fast and loud. The protestors said CARES did not have the training or the ability to handle animal control and care of those impounded. Some made personal allegations, others felt the county was the only agency that could do the job properly.
City Manager Martin said it made more sense to pay CARES $110,000 a year than the then latest offer from the county of over $300,000 a year.
The complaints went on and on, bringing Martin to say with exasperation that, “Never in my career, have I seen something going so right characterized as going so wrong.”
What do others do?
About the same time Burien dropped King County, the city of Des Moines stopped using the county for kenneling services.
“We used to contract with King County Animal Control,” said Jan Magnuson, Des Moines Animal Control Officer for the past 24 years. “When they made the decision (that) ‘we are either all in or out’ and if we were going to contract with them any further then they would have to be doing our enforcement – basically take my job away.”
Des Moines now contracts with local kennels and vets. “That works great,” she says.
“Our program is very, very successful,” she says. “We have a high redemption rate. We are a small town, about 30,000 residents, and because I was born and raised in the area, I know a lot of people with pets (here) so, often times, when someone finds a pet (and) if its friendly and they are willing to hang onto it for a short time, often times, the owner calls us and tells us they have lost their pet and we can hook them up together to get their pet back and we never even have to impound it.
“That is one of the advantages also with our licensing program we do though our police department. We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says.
If an animal has a current Des Moines license on it, and was running scared from a thunderstorm, people can call the police department at any hour and the owner information can be accessed and the owner can be put in touch with the person who found the animal.
“We have a really high redemption rate,” Magnuson says, and in Des Moines, if the animal is licensed it almost always is reunited with its owner.
Normandy Park has its police department handle animal complaints.
Re-up with county
But SeaTac and Tukwila have joined 23 other suburban Seattle cities in keeping animal services with King County.
Costs for SeaTac for 2013 animal services will be $107,000 after a $124,000 subsidy to SeaTac as high county shelter user, a subsidy that will be provided for each of three years of the contract. The costs for 2014 and 2015 will be adjusted based on population growth and inflation, said SeaTac Police Captain Annette Louie who oversees animal control.
The county said its “preliminary discussions with Burien earlier this year had yielded an initial cost-sharing estimate (for Animal Control field operations, animal sheltering and licensing services) of about $324,000 annually,” said Gene Mueller, the new manager of regional animal services for the county, and manager of the shelter in Kent.
“We would continue to have discussions with Burien staff to refine the numbers based on updated information, i.e. number of field calls, shelter intakes, licenses sold, etc., if they have an interest in joining the Regional Animal Services system in the future.”
Mueller is a native of Illinois and is a veterinarian. He held several posts in Chicago, including as an epidemiologist, director of environmental health regulating restaurants in the city then as the executive director of the commission on animal control under former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
He was drawn to Seattle by the “wonderful environment of the Northwest,” he said.
New county system
The new county system provides animal services based on calls from citizens and from police and for other city services like code enforcement related to animal calls.
“Vicious animals, animal cruelty in the act – those are calls that we respond to with the highest priority,” Mueller says. “At the other opposite of the spectrum are the sort of nuisance calls (like) ‘my neighbor occasionally lets his dog defecate on my lawn.’ We try and make sure we are able to address all of the priority calls and, then, as we have capacity, deal with some of the nuisance calls.”
He said all of the subscribed cities get the same service and that there will be three animal control districts in the new contract period beginning next Jan. 1. There are four such districts now.
Each district, says Mueller, will be serviced by an animal control officer, “almost like a police district, so it does not matter what city that is in but the officer is picking off the priority calls, and then going further down in the priority list of calls.”
Besides SeaTac and Tukwila, the county services unincorporated White Center and Vashon Island.
Priority calls, he said, are responded to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We actually have animal control officers north and south that are on call after hours for police requests for assistance. At 3 a.m., people who call 9-1-1 and saying there is a vicious animal that is biting somebody or is running loose or there are two head of cattle walking down the main street of a certain town, we actually respond to those.
“On weekends (and after hours), we actually have officers in the districts and they are taking the priority calls via the Sheriff’s office dispatch,” Mueller said.
What about chronic complainers?
He says officers try to identify whether it is a personal relationship problem between two neighbors or really a neighborhood issue. If it is a neighborhood problem, “then we address that through education, or a citation to appear before the board of appeals.”
Penalties can run from $50 to $500, which would be for a vicious dog attack. All of the fines are appealable before the King County Board of Appeals, Mueller said.
Cost per city
The contract costs for each city’s participation in the county’s animal services used to be figured 50-50 on population and on the number of service calls. That was why the Burien cost was over $300,000 per year two years ago.
Now, Mueller said, the contract cost is based on a weighted formula, with 80 percent of the price of the estimated service – how many animal calls are made in the individual cities – and the cost of servicing those calls.
“You can have two cities with the same population but because of past experience with the number of calls for service in an area or the number of animals that have come in from an area their costs will be much different. Moving forward, 80 percent of that cost will be estimated based on past use of field service and the (King County) shelter (in the west valley of Kent) and 20 percent based on population. So it is much more heavily based on actual service numbers,” Mueller said.
There is a “late-comers provision,” he said, and if a city wants to join the system after the Jan. 1, 2013 start date, all costs for all cities are re-figured to reflect the payments of the newcomer.
The new contract will also have a provision for a city to get special services, perhaps have parks patrolled because of special events or large number of animals running loose that could make people feel unsafe.
“We can provide the service if we have the staff to do it,” Mueller said, unlike when the county refused sheltering services to Des Moines.
County thanks supporters
King County Executive Dow Constantine recently thanked leaders of 25 cities in the county for renewing for three years contracts with King County Animal Control. SeaTac and Tukwila signed for renewed county animal service. Burien, Normandy Park and Des Moines handle animal control locally.
The Metropolitan King County Council has given its support to the continuation of the collaborative regional animal services program that spreads the cost of animal control, sheltering and licensing between the county for unincorporated areas and 25 suburban cities. The council unanimously adopted an ordinance authorizing the executive to enter into an interlocal agreement that provides field officers, shelter services and licensing services.
“This model partnership between the county and municipalities will bring consistent, cost-effective and compassionate solutions to our animal control challenges,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague, the prime sponsor of the ordinance.
The cities not participating within the Regional Animal Services system are Seattle, Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, Federal Way, Algona, Auburn (as of 2013), Renton, Bothell, Medina, Hunts Point, Pacific, Skykomish, and Milton.