Animal control is up in the air
December 8, 2009
By J.B. Wogan
Susan Schlosstein watched Cocoa, her long, chocolate, mixed-breed dog bound through the off-leash area at Beaver Lake Park Dec. 2. Cocoa is officially licensed because Schlosstein paid a $30 fee to King County. However, she is in a distinct minority of pet owners.
The lax rate of pet licensing is one factor contributing to a coming shake-up in the way King County handles animals. Yet, with a deadline for changing the system about seven weeks away, no one knows how things will work or what it will cost.
County officials estimate that about one-fifth of Sammamish pet owners pay the fee, and say that rate is typical across the county.
The fact that such a low percentage of people pay their licensing fees prompted the county to announce this fall that it would no longer provide animal shelters as of Jan. 31, 2010 and stop providing animal control by June 30, 2010. When Schlosstein heard the news, her reaction was simple:
“Someone has to pick it up,” she said.
So far, no one knows who that “someone” will be. Mike Sauerwein, Sammamish’s administrative services director, is trying to lock down sheltering and control services for 2010.
Sauerwein said cities are working with the county and independent shelters to find a way of maintaining animal services if and when the county pulls out.
Today King County Animal Care and Control provides sheltering service, education for pet owners and help with pet adoption. It also handles animal code enforcement for all parts of unincorporated King County and its contract cities.
Pet owners pay for the majority of these services through licensing and other fees. However in recent years, fees haven’t covered expenses, and the county has had to use tax dollars to keep the shelters running.
Elissa Benson, deputy director for strategic planning and performance management, said licensing fees generate about $4.5 million in revenue for the county (Last year Sammamish’s 4,758 licensed pets generated $92,347), not nearly enough to cover the department’s expenses (about $5.7 million). In the past, the county has dipped into its general fund to cover the difference.
Kurt Triplett, who was the county executive until late last month, announced in September that he wanted the county to stop providing those services because it was a money loser.
The King County Council agreed, and on Nov. 9, directed Triplett to get the county out of the animal business.
The responsibility of resolving the animal sheltering and control issue now falls to Dow Constantine, who took over as county executive Nov. 24.
Kendall LeVan, project manager in the King County Office of Strategic Planning and Performance Management, said the county might continue to provide animal control services. If so, it would negotiate a “full-cost recovery” contract with cities. She added that the county has not provided a definition of what full-cost recovery would mean.
Sauerwein said he has heard the suggestion that cities would contract with the county for full-time animal control officers.
He said the bigger cities like Bellevue, Kirkland and Seattle are likely to influence whatever solution the county ends up proposing.
The county is also in talks with a handful of private groups about taking over sheltering services, said LeVan. So far, those talks haven’t yielded a solution.
Brenda Barnette, CEO of the Seattle Humane Society, said she isn’t optimistic about the county transferring the sheltering services to other agencies by the Jan. 31 deadline.
“We’re pretty concerned that they’re going out of business without a plan in place,” she said.
Regardless of what happens, Sammamish’s problems with animal sheltering would likely be relatively minor, according to Barnette.
Cities like Auburn, Kent and Federal Way will likely be hardest hit since they have a history of high costs (because of large sheltering demands) and low revenues (because a low percentage of pet owners license their pets), Barnette said.
“Other cities have been subsidizing them,” she said.
Kay Joubert, PAWS’ director of companion animal services said even if PAWS and local humane societies step in to take over animal sheltering, they wouldn’t have enough space — leaving 4,000-5,000 animals with nowhere to go.
“There’s a very large gap,” Joubert said.
In the interim, Constantine is weighing his options, which include extending the deadline until solutions can be put in place, said Frank Abe, director of communications for the King County Executive’s Office.
“If more time is needed, we’re certainly ready to work with the (County) Council on some flexibility on that timeline,” Abe said. “We recognize that we have an obligation to ensure that there is enough space for the animals and options for sheltering them.”
Reporter J.B. Wogan can be reached at 392-6434, ext. 247, or firstname.lastname@example.org.