Humane Society Protests Town Cuts

Debate about $50,000 cut centers on Town of Payson’s

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Humane Society of Central Arizona President John Wakelin Tuesday decried as “woefully inadequate” a proposed $35,000 contract with the Town of Payson for handling stray dogs and cats.

The proposed contract represented a drastic cut from this year’s $88,000 tally at a time when the Humane Society is struggling to raise money for a new shelter.

Humane Society advocates this week launched a protest effort, vowing to jam a future council meeting to protest the reduction. Ironically, the town and the Humane Society have just recently teamed up to apply jointly for a $3.5 million federal stimulus grant to build the new shelter, which would include indoor, sound-proofed kennels, a low-cost community spay and neuter clinic and improved facilities for handling sick animals. The Humane Society recently broke ground on the shelter, even though it has only raised about one-third of the money it will ultimately need.

Wakelin appealed to the council to restore the $50,000 to the budget, saying even the current contract doesn’t cover the full costs of sheltering a stray dog, providing shots and a checkup and seeking an adoptive home.

The vigorous debate before the council turned on how the animal shelter calculated the costs of taking in a dog, and whether the town should pay the costs of stray animals picked up in Payson but brought to the shelter by someone besides the town’s animal control officer.

The animal control officer brings in about 349 animals per year, but the shelter takes in about 1,000 strays annually, said Wakelin.

Wakelin said the contract requires the shelter to take in any stray brought in by anyone.

He said the Humane Society would not accept the proposed, “woefully inadequate” $35,000 contract. “We’d love to have more, but we couldn’t go lower” than the current $88,000 contract.

Payson Police Chief Don Engler had proposed the big reduction as part of the second year of slim budgets, which includes an overall 5-percent increase in the operations budget.

Engler argued the town’s animal control officer in the past 12 months has delivered just 394 animals to the shelter under the terms of the contract with the private, non-profit organization. That works out to about $223 per animal. Cutting the contract to $35,000 would reduce the cost to about $100 per animal, said Engler.

However, Wakelin countered the town ought to pay at least a portion of the cost of the other 600 dogs and cats from Payson turned in by other people — since the whole town benefits from the lack of stray animals running loose. Based on 1,000 animals, the current contract costs total $88 per animal and the reduced contract would provide just $35 per animal.

In truth, argued Wakelin, the town should nearly double the current contract to cover the full costs of handling those 1,000 animals during the first three days.

Wakelin said the shelter did a “motion study” to estimate the average cost of accepting a new dog or cat, providing necessary shots and medical care and getting them ready to adopt. That study put the estimated cost at about $180 per animal.

At that rate, handling the 349 animals costs the shelter $62,000 and handling 1,000 animals costs about $180,000.

Moreover, Wakelin estimated the town ultimately collects $3,000 to $10,000 in fines and license fees to offset its costs.

Council members handled the issue gingerly, asking questions about cost estimates without revealing how they’re likely to vote on the issue when the time comes to actually adopt the budget. On the other hand, none asked Engler to revise the department’s budget and include the higher fee.

The tentative town budget for 2009-10 now features a surplus of just $71,000 in an operating budget of $25.7 million and a total budget including potential grants of $56 million.

Engler said he thought the $35,000 represented a fair number, since the town was only legally responsible for the animals picked up by the animal control officer, on which the town spends an additional $60,000.

Councilor Richard Croy said “the Humane Society has to realize, we have to bear the cost of the animal control officer and his vehicle as well.”

Councilor Su Connell said the Humane Society’s $180-per-animal estimate “covers a lot of things that should be split between multiple animals.” She also asked Engler to repeat a comparison between jailing people and impounding dogs.

Engler said it costs about $70 per day to keep someone in the town jail, or $210 for three days.

Wakelin said the shelter’s contract with the town requires it to accept any stray, which means the town should assume financial responsibility for all 1,000 animals.

However, Town Attorney Sam Streichman said he would rewrite the contract this year to make it clear the shelter didn’t have to accept any dogs besides those brought in by the animal control officer. Last year, the town didn’t actually get a contract to the shelter for the year that started in July until September.

“So every time someone brings an animal to the door, you want us to call the animal control officer to come pick it up?” asked Wakelin.

“We’re writing a new contract,” said Streichman. “I guarantee you it will not say the Humane Society is obligated to take every stray in at our expense.”

Wakelin asked what would happen if the town refused to pick up the strays brought to the shelter.

“Then I guess we have a lot of animals running loose,” said Streichman.

Wakelin left without an answer to his plea, but Humane Society advocates this week vowed to bring a contingent to the next budget session to protest the proposed reduction.

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