The Humane Society might not get its budget slashed this year after all, despite Payson’s ongoing budget woes.
Negotiators for Payson and the Humane Society of Central Arizona have met repeatedly on whether to cut the annual contract for handling stray cats and dogs from about $88,000 to less than $35,000.
Not only has the council tentatively restored full funding, but the town’s review of the state law on animal control requirements could substantially bolster the Humane Society’s case.
The renewed negotiations could pull relations between the town and the Humane Society back from near breakdown caused by the proposed contract cut and the vociferous criticism of council members the proposal inspired in some quarters.
Moreover, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans recently put in a plug with U.S. Sen. John McCain for the Humane Society’s application for some $3.5 million in federal stimulus money to build a new, state-of-the-art animal shelter. Evans spent the day with McCain in Globe and discovered that the application for money from the Department of Homeland Security to build the animal shelter had gotten sidetracked. McCain then promised to watchdog the application through the torturous federal process.
The negotiations between the town and the animal shelter have been complicated by the resignation of Humane Society President John Wakelin.
He stayed on until he worked out an arrangement to switch places with Humane Society Vice President Bill Enlund, according to town officials.
Wakelin had previously declined any comment on his resignation and subsequent change of posts.
Enlund said of the shift, “We both felt he would be more effective as vice president. I have a flak jacket and I can take all the bullets.”
Of the negotiations, he noted, “We started off being confused on both sides — and now we are unconfused and working our way through the budget process. The numbers are still being massaged.”
The Humane Society Board of Directors this week issued a statement saying, “After a slow start with the Town of Payson contract negotiations, we are now working fervently towards a fair contract for both parties. We meet regularly and are happy with our progress.”
Payson Police Chief Don Engler had proposed the cut for the upcoming budget year, arguing that the town’s animal control officer generally turned over to the animal shelter only 350 to 400 animals annually.
The Humane Society has operated on the basis of a flat-rate contract for the past several years. However, Engler said the flat rate produced a total charge of $225 per animal, which he considered excessive relative to per-animal payments made by Gila County and other towns.
The Humane Society protested that a study showed the actual per-animal cost at close to $180, based on the man-hours, materials, procedures and proportionate overhead for the first 72 hours after the animal entered the shelter. The town is legally responsible for only the first 72 hours, although the Humane Society keeps adoptable animals for months while seeking good homes for them.
Moreover, Humane Society representatives argued that the town should really pay for the 1,000 cats and dogs picked up in Payson annually, even though the town’s animal control officer in the last year had picked up only 349.
If the town paid the Humane Society $180 for each of 1,000 animals picked up in Payson, the contract cost would potentially double to some $180,000 or more. Even the 349 animals picked up this year would have cost $62,000 at $180 each.
The town council initially accepted an austere town budget that cut the Humane Society contract to $35,000.
That triggered a hailstorm of bitter, sometimes intensely personal criticism of the council that initially appeared to harden the position of some council members.
However, at a budget meeting last week, the council accepted revisions that envisioned restoring the contract to $88,000. Surprisingly, the restoration of the $50,000 came despite unanticipated increases in health insurance and other costs that upped budget costs by nearly $1 million and forced the town to shift more costs to the water department.
Council members at the time said they adopted the new estimates in case the negotiations between the Humane Society and the town justified restoring some or all of the money for handling strays.
During a previous council meeting, then-Humane Society President Wakelin had asked the council whether the shelter should turn away strays unless the town-paid animal control officer brought them in. “What would happen if we just turned them away?” asked Wakelin.
“Then I guess you’d have a lot of strays running around,” Town Attorney Sam Streichman had replied.
However, town officials said subsequent research suggests that state law requires the town to pick up all strays within the town limits. The town can adopt a more restrictive animal control ordinance, but can’t do less than the minimum state requirement.
The town has now asked for more detail justifying the Humane Society’s estimate of the per-animal costs of taking in strays and preparing them for adoption — although the town still need not assume costs beyond the first 72 hours.