The Payson Town Council decisively rejected the Humane Society of Central Arizona’s request for a 25 percent increase in its contract for handling stray animals.
Instead, the council approved another one-year extension of the existing $88,000 annual contract.
The vote turned largely on a persistent confusion about how many stray dogs and cats from Payson the animal shelter on South McLane handles each year.
Police Chief Don Engler put the number at about 800, while HSCAZ Executive Director Sarah Hock put the number at about 1,100.
The council went with Engler’s figures in rejecting the shelter’s request for a $22,000 increase in its contract.
“I have to tell you, I’m very concerned about this increase,” said Councilor Su Connell. “I’m very much opposed to these escalating rates.” She said she could never support an increase in the money spent on homeless dogs and cats when the town had 550 homeless teens.
“I am diametrically opposed to any increase. It’s time we take care of our children, our old people,” said Connell. “We have to control the cost of the humane society.”
Hock huddled with several HSCAZ board members after the meeting to figure out why the town had such different figures on the number of dogs and cats the humane society had sheltered in the past year. They decided the humane society had not accurately reported to the town the number of dogs and cats turned in by citizens, instead of just the animals brought to the shelter by Payson’s animal control officer.
In her presentation to the council, Hock said that people who donate to the humane society actually now subsidize the cost of handling the 800 to 1,100 strays that come from Payson.
The HSCAZ did a study that indicates the average cost of accepting a dog or a cat and sheltering them for the 72 hours called for in the town contract is $157 for a dog and $129 for a cat. The town has no legal obligation to provide funding to shelter animals kept beyond that 72 hours.
The cost of euthanasia adds about $30 to the 72-hour cost. The shelter this year euthanized about a quarter of the animals received, but found homes for the rest, even if that required keeping the abandoned pets for months.
Chief Engler said Gila County has a contract that pays the humane society $100 for each stray held for at least 72 hours. He said Payson paid an average of $111 per animal, based on the 800 animals brought in by the town’s animal control officer.
The humane society’s requested increase to $110,000 annually would boost the per-animal average cost to $138, based on 800 animals.
However, if the HSCAZ actually handled 1,100 animals, the cost at $110,000 would work out to $100 per animal — the same as the county contract.
If you include the additional 300 stray animals from Payson turned over to the shelter by anyone besides the animal control officer, the humane society’s annual cost rises to $157,000, according to its own cost study.
Engler said the town did not conduct its own study to check the accuracy of the humane society’s estimate of the per-animal cost. He said the per-animal charges at the Payson shelter were at the high end of the scale compared to the charges by other animal shelters.
Hock said the shelter has seen a steady rise in the number of dogs and cats abandoned by their owners, a trend she attributes to the sickly local economy.
In the end, the discussion turned on the same unresolved issues that have bedeviled the contract since Chief Engler two years ago proposed reducing the humane society contract from $88,000 to about $35,000 annually.
At that time, Engler argued that the town should only assume legal responsibility for dogs and cats collected by the animal control officer.
The humane society protested, insisting the town had a legal responsibility under state law to deal with all the strays in town, not just the animals captured by the animal control officer.
The town initially rejected that contention, but later decided the humane society was probably right. State law doesn’t require towns to adopt an animal control ordinance, but once a town does, it becomes responsible for all the strays in town — at least for that first 72 hours.
Since that debate, then-assistant town attorney Tim Wright has been promoted to the chief town attorney.
On Thursday after the meeting, he said he didn’t know whether the law makes the town legally responsible for strays not turned over by the animal control officer.
He also said it’s not clear state law imposes a legal responsibility on the town to round up stray cats at all, unless they create a nuisance or health threat.
Councilor Fred Carpenter proposed a compromise increase of 8 percent to $96,000 annually, the first increase in three years. The council rejected that idea on a 4-3 vote, with both Blair and Councilor John Wilson supporting Carpenter.
The council then voted 5-2 to approve the $88,000 contract, with Wilson shifting back to support the majority position.
During the council discussion, Town Manager Debra Galbraith in response to the question from a council member said the current town budget already included the money for the contract increase. Technically, the contract expired at the end of the fiscal year in June, but the council didn’t vote on the extension until last week.
After the vote, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans admonished the town staff to find a way to reconcile its numbers with the humane society’s. “If we could get the process started much earlier in the year to track costs, it would be helpful.”
“Well, our numbers are different from their numbers,” said Galbraith. “They can defend their numbers and we can defend our numbers and they’re always different. We would love to get this settled so we don’t go through this every year.”