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The Animal Control Mess: A Modest Proposal

Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized

Over the past few months and years, issues surrounding the problems of animal control and stray animals been a recurring theme in the local press.  Throughout Pennsylvania the old model of animal control service delivery has been breaking down, resulting in turmoil and confusion.  Citizens, taxpayers, state and municipal governments have long relied nearly exclusively on charitable animal welfare organizations to provide animal control and euthanasia services for stray animals.  This near complete reliance on charities is somewhat unique to Pennsylvania.

Municipalities have balked for years at providing a reasonable payment for animal control services.  Counties have largely avoided any responsibility at all by leaving it entirely in the hands of municipalities.  The State, through the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, has generally relied on private animal shelters to either take dogs from them or do their job for them, while offering paltry “grants” in exchange.  The result is that the charitable donors of private animal shelters have long subsidized animal control and the other animals helped by these shelters have had resources diverted from them in order to provide this subsidy.

Increasingly, animal welfare organizations, after years of being underfunded (if funded at all) for these services and who have grown weary of subsidizing these municipal responsibilities and of having the burden of being the final destination for tens of thousands of strays each year, have begun divesting themselves of their animal control contracts. 

Municipalities, despite years of pleading and begging by shelters for greater resources and warning of the potential for a cut off in services, often claim to have been blindsided when services are dropped.  Municipalities and the State now face the very real problem of not having any place to take stray animals as private shelters focus other mission imperatives.  The shelters who still offer animal control services or stray intake and euthanasia services are increasingly overwhelmed and often attacked by a public who blame the shelters for the reality of euthanasia thrust upon them.  Sometimes the attacks are undeserved.  Other times shelters use the animal control reality to deflect legitimate concern about bad organizational management and policies.

The result is bad care and increased likelihood of euthanasia for the animals, little or no accountability on the part of animal shelters or government, no incentive for improving the root causes of pet overpopulation and strays through policy and legislation, and the unfair charitable subsidy of a government responsibility.  This problem impacts our entire community.  The responsibility is borne by our entire community.  Yet the burden is placed on an increasingly small group of charitable organizations. 

The solutions offered, if any are offered at all, tend to be versions of the current system but with a higher price tag.  The Humane Society of Berks County believes the past and current model of animal control service delivery is broken and new proposals must be made to break the cycle of rampant stray euthanasia, poor public policy, shifting responsibility and escalating costs.

We are putting forward a proposal for a plan that will provide comprehensive animal control services for Berks County which will share costs and responsibility and will lead to better care and outcomes for stray animals, less expensive service fees, increased accountability for taxpayers, and a new, replicable and scalable model for animal control in Pennsylvania.

This plan is intended to be a serious proposal to address a serious problem.  There are certainly other models and ideas which could be developed.  Unfortunately, they are simply not being proposed.  We hope this proposal begins a conversation that leads us all to a new era of animal control service in Pennsylvania.

Read on for the Humane Society of Berks County’s Plan for Comprehensive Animal Control Service Reform….

Humane Society of Berks County’s Plan for Comprehensive Animal Control Service Reform

The Problem:  Each year in Berks County thousands of stray animals (perhaps as many as 8,000) enter private animal shelters.  These animals face great likelihood of euthanasia and cost enormous sums of money to catch, care for, and adopt or euthanize.  The vast majority of those funds come from charitable donors via private animal shelters.  The average cost per capita to fund animal shelters in Berks and the US is about $8.  However, the amount provided via State, municipal and County funding sources for animal control services is approximately .50 per capita in Berks.  The remaining $7.50 in per capita expense comes from charitable donors.

Municipalities often claim they should not pay more money because charitable animal shelters spend their money on other things that have nothing to do with animal control such as veterinary care, behavioral training, adoptions, education, etc.  And while this is true, it does not take into consideration the actual per capita costs of strictly providing animal control services exclusively for stray animals.  These average per capita costs run from $8 to $13 or more nationwide.  That means that in Berks County, with a population of about 400,000, the average annual expenditure on animal control alone each year should be between $3.2 million and $5.2 million if national averages determined the investment.  Yet the actual government investment in providing animal control services is about $200,000.

Until animal control services can be evaluated on a true cost basis, it seems unlikely that government will pay more for a service which is viewed as a “donation” to animal shelters.  Until the payment for these services goes up, the quality of animal control services will remain low and government will face the ever looming specter of further animal shelter refusals to provide the service.  Until the cost of these services are equitably shared, the expense will be prohibitive for any one organization, donor, or governmental body to provide.

The Solution:  The cost of animal control services must be shared throughout the community and the delivery of animal control services must be delivered independently of charitable organizations.  If this is done the per person and per government cost for animal control services can be greatly diminished, the exact cost can be directly determined, accountability for the success or failure of service delivery can be exactly assigned, and all parties involved with this community wide crisis can play the part they are best suited to.

The Humane Society of Berks County’s Plan for Comprehensive Animal Control Service Reform provides a solution to each of these problems by assigning the means for specific responsibility, funding and accountability in a transparent manner.

Key Points of the Reform Plan

Severing of Responsibility from Charitable Organizations:  Animal shelters will always be forced to balance their strictly charitable mission with their contractual animal control mission as long as they do both.  Decisions about staffing decisions, product choices, service options and law enforcement will always become entwined as animal control management decisions bump against charitable mission imperatives.  The two imperatives must be severed.

Unfortunately, the only entities with the expertise in handling and housing large numbers of domestic animals in a shelter environment are private sector animal welfare organizations.  Even if government were capable of developing the expertise required, the operating costs would be vastly higher.  That is the reason the average per capita costs are so high for municipal animal control operations compared to private shelters.  Privatized service is key to maintaining lower costs.  But how do you accomplish both privatization and segregation from the charitable missions of animal welfare organizations?

This can be accomplished through the creation of an independent Management Services Organization incorporated under the control of a highly functioning animal welfare organization but directly contractually serving the government for the exclusive purpose of providing animal control services.  The scope of the services and expectations of the contract relationship would be clearly delineated.  Payment would be provided for specific service, with no touchy-feely bells and whistles which are vital to a charitable mission but not required of, or wanted by, a government seeking only animal control services.

The contracting government would then have a stand-alone service to evaluate, selected to provide a specific service for a specific price.  Like with any vendor, if the service is not provided satisfactorily, a new vendor can be selected to provide the service.  However, a direct negotiation for price and service can take place within the framework of the service required.

Services Provided:  When talking about animal control services there are several key functions expected.  They include intake of strays from the public, pick up of confined strays, care for strays, stray return-to-owner services, legally mandated medical care for animals, euthanasia of animals which are injured, aggressive, not claimed by owners or not accepted for adoption transfer by charitable animal welfare organizations, and animal law enforcement (non-cruelty animal law).  Active partnerships could be formed, as is the case in most other major US cities, with animal welfare organizations to transfer unclaimed strays to private organizations for adoption.  In this way the long term expense is transferred to these charities, voluntarily and without coercion.

Distribution of Responsibility:  This reform plan would allow all actors to play the role appropriate and the role they choose.  Government would provide oversight and funding.  The contracted MSO would provide direct service.  Local animal welfare organizations would be able to partner to the extent of their interest and means to assist in saving the lives of animals through adoption transfer services.  Members of the public who wish to support specific animal control efforts would be able to target their support directly at the stray animal population (via direct stray adoption, promotion of stray issues, donations to government in support of animal control efforts).  The responsibilities of each party would be clearly defined.

Distribution of Cost:  Currently in Berks County approximately half the funding for animal control services are provided by the State and half by County municipalities (about $100,000 from the State for dog control services, about $90,000 from the City of Reading for animal control services and the remaining few thousand from various other municipalities).  This is not sufficient to provide comprehensive animal control services, even when subsidized through charitable donations provided to shelters delivering animal control services or accepting and housing strays.

Because stray animals and animal control issues tend to fairly closely trend with population statistics- i.e. the number of stray animals from an area is tied to the number of people in an area- a per capita charge would be a reasonable mechanism for funding animal control services.  The fee would be directly related to the number of people being serviced.  Since our taxes flow in three directions, our municipality, our county and the State, it would be fair to share the cost between these three taxing entities.  Our proposal would call for splitting the cost of service between the State (20%), the County of Berks (40%) and individual municipalities (40%).  In Berks County, the State already provides a payment for services derived from the sale of dog licenses.  This would continue, requiring little or no change in investment by the State.  The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement is only tasked with dog control so their contribution would be smaller (one half the contribution of each of the other two funding parties).

Determination of Cost:  Doing some extremely basic calculations of the cost of staffing and operating a strictly animal control facility, some broad costs can be determined.  Assuming animal control pick up services seven day a week (2.8 full time staff), general kennel and animal care positions seven days a week (7 full time staff), and clerical support seven days a week (1.4 full time staff), the total number of full time staff equivalents would be 11.2.  Assuming a wage of about $12-$15 an hour and benefits, let’s say a staff cost of $400,000 annually.

For operations let’s say about $100,000 since operations will be strictly intake, short term care and housing, transfer to charitable entities for adoption, owner claim or euthanasia.  We’ll add 10% to the total for good measure and get a total operating fee of $550,000 and add a 13% management fee (about what a United Way might charge) and we end up with a total proposed contract fee by the MSO of $621,500.

Payment for Service:  Based on the proposed contribution breakdown, the State’s portion of the cost would be $124,200 annually, very close to their current payment for dog control services in Berks County.  Additional fees could be assessed to the State in the event that it would wish to transfer additional dogs to the Berks facility from regions without comprehensive animal control services.  The County of Berks and the combined Berks Municipalities would pay $248,400 each.  That would be a per capita cost of $1.22 per person in Berks County (based on 2009 Census population estimate of 407,125 residents), or .61 per person from the County and .61 per person from each municipality.  As an example, Amity Township with 8,876 residents would be required to contribute $5,408 annually, Muhlenberg Township with about 16,305 residents would pay $9,460, Reading City with 81,207 residents would pay $49,536, etc.  A flat sixty-one cents per person, per year for comprehensive animal control services, 365 days a year.  Pocket change.

Facility:  Our proposal would suggest that a dedicated animal control facility be owned by the County and operated by the contracted organization.  The cost of the new facility would vary with design, size, whether it was built on county owned land, etc.  Assuming a cost of one million dollars at a 30 year mortgage rate (an appropriate facility could be retrofitted for far less), the cost of the facility could be covered by adding an additional fifteen cents per person annually.  By owning the facility, the county would not be at risk for a contracted MSO dropping a contract and cutting off access to a proprietary facility.  The County could also decide in the future to take on animal control by itself and have its own facility.

What Municipalities and Taxpayers Would Get:  Under this model all residents of the county and municipalities would have access to animal control assistance- stray pick up, animal control law enforcement, police assistance, etc.  The cost would be borne equitably.  Stray animal would have a dedicated service provider and place to go.  The contractor could be held accountable for poor performance and a new contractor chosen if needed.  Animal welfare charities would be free to pursue their missions without being cajoled, bullied and pressed into providing animal control and euthanasia services which might violate their missions and divert charitable donations.

Animals would still be getting euthanized.  But the residents of Berks County would know precisely how many and why and would hold the government accountable.  They could ask why there is no vision in place for improving and implementing public policy which would save lives in the long term and reach the vaunted goal of a low kill/no kill community.  That will be good for animals and the community.  Charities couldn’t hide behind the animal control problem any longer and blame management mistakes or failures on being overwhelmed with strays.  We’d have to defend what we do on the merits of what we do.  That would be good for the non-profit community. 

And ultimately this will simply bring us up to speed with what other communities are doing around the nation.  Although this proposal offers some funding specifics unique to our State and region, the core notion of a community wide partnership and acceptance of responsibility for the problem is being modeled in communities around the nation.  We just need to open our little Berks County eyes and look around.  Not only can we do it, it is being done elsewhere.

Summary: The proposed plan is a plan, not the plan.  It would provide for the needs of animals, government, residents, taxpayers, and charitable organizations equitably, with transparency, and at a fraction of the actual cost of the current charitable donor subsidized system or of the municipal based system practiced elsewhere.  It is not intended to be exact in its calculation or a bid for a contract.  It is intended to be a starting point for a discussion by all parties on a way out of the unsustainable mess we face now in Berks County and Pennsylvania.

Undoubtedly, anyone can and probably will find something “wrong” with this proposal and they may very well be correct.  What we at the Humane Society of Berks County want to know is are we going to keep complaining about the problem or are we going to find a solution we can implement?  Here is an idea we have.  Do you have a better idea?

Update 12-3-10: Another domino may fall: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/griffin-pond-animal-shelter-may-stop-accepting-animals-from-municipal-officials-1.1072049

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