Members of a task force of Washtenaw County commissioners are developing a policy to guide the county’s investment in animal control services. At their most recent meeting, on June 29, they talked through different service levels that the county might provide, beyond what are mandated by the state.
Their work is laying a foundation for soliciting proposals later this year – possibly by September – for an entity to handle the county’s animal control services. The county currently contracts with the Humane Society of Huron Valley for that work.
A separate work group, led by sheriff Jerry Clayton, is developing a cost structure for those services. A preliminary cost analysis has already been drafted, but a more detailed report is being prepared that will give estimates for different service levels that might be offered.
The policy task force and cost work group were created by the county board at its Feb. 15, 2012 meeting, when commissioners also approved a $415,000 contract with the HSHV to provide animal control services for the county through Dec. 31, 2012. The task force and work group will likely come together at a July 25 meeting, another step toward setting a new scope of services tied to costs.
The July 25 discussion is expected to include representatives from other communities that have their own animal control ordinances, including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Commissioners also plan to invite county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie to the table as well – his office has purview over prosecuting animal cruelty cases and other legal issues related to animal control, which have an impact on expenses.
At the June 29 meeting, there was some discussion about issuing a preliminary request for proposals (RFP), to get responses about costs for a minimum level of service. However, it’s not clear whether that idea has traction. Rob Turner, the county board’s liaison to the cost work group, said he was shocked that such an approach might be considered, given the amount of work that’s being done to develop a policy and cost structure as the basis for issuing an RFP. Conan Smith, the board chair who is spearheading this effort, indicated it was not his intent to sideline the existing process.
Throughout the June 29 meeting, commissioner Barbara Bergman was vocal in her support of keeping costs to a minimum and in sticking to the county’s mandated services. She said her compassion is for human beings who don’t have food or shelter, and she doesn’t want to be considered uncompassionate just because she wants the county’s funding to be spent on humans.
A representative from the Humane Society of Huron Valley – Jenny Paillon, HSHV director of operations – told commissioners that ideas for generating new revenue are also being developed, and could be presented at the July 25 meeting. That meeting is scheduled from 8-10 a.m. at the lower level of the county administration building, 200 N. Main in Ann Arbor.
All of these meetings are open to the public and are being facilitated by members of the Dispute Resolution Center. Information related to this process – including meeting minutes and materials provided to commissioners – are also posted on the county’s website.
Timing – A Preliminary RFP?
The June 29 discussion began with a question about when to issue a request for proposals (RFP). Conan Smith noted that the board had originally planned to issue an RFP in September of 2012, but if it could be done sooner, that would be better. He said it might be possible to issue a “preliminary” RFP prior to the main RFP, to get responses about a baseline level of service.
Barbara Bergman said she had proposed this approach to Smith. By September, there are only three months left in the year, she said, and it’s cutting the time too short. Bergman told the others at the meeting that she had attended the first task force meeting on May 9, but not the other meetings – as she felt the work was being done too late. But Smith had convinced her to come to this meeting, she said. [At the May 9 meeting, the only commissioners to show up were Bergman and Smith, so the meeting had been canceled. Since then, two other meetings had been held in addition to the one on June 29 – on May 23 and June 13. Bergman did not attend either of those.]
Bergman wanted to send out a preliminary RFP as fast as the county’s procurement staff could issue it. That would send the message that the county isn’t complacent about this process, she said, and that they have a fairly tight budget.
Smith said he’d follow up on that idea, but he wanted to talk to the procurement staff to see if it made sense from a purchasing perspective. Based on that feedback, he said, it might be possible to bring a preliminary RFP for board approval at the July 11 board meeting, he said. [As of July 9, there is no RFP for animal control services on the July 11 agenda.]
Rob Turner said he was shocked. Two groups have been working on this issue – the task force on policy, and a separate work group led by the sheriff to develop specifics about costs. Now, even before these groups finish their tasks, the county is going to issue an RFP for minimum service levels? “I’m really lost,” he said. Turner said commissioners were still trying to determine what level of service they want to provide, and what they could afford.
Smith clarified that a preliminary RFP would not set a scope of services. He then said that maybe the term “RFP” isn’t the right one to use. It’s almost like a pre-bid process, he said. Smith also cautioned that he’d had only a very brief conversation with Bergman about this approach the previous day, but hadn’t yet talked with county administrator Verna McDaniel or other key county staff about it. They might give the advice that this isn’t the best approach to use, he said.
Smith stressed that he wanted to honor the process that the board and staff had laid out – he’s not interested in sidelining that.
Bergman noted that there might be other people who can provide services, not just the Humane Society of Huron Valley. And if the county board doesn’t get that kind of information about other service providers, she added, then they’re just “whistling in the wind.” HSHV is satisfied to provide a certain level of service at a certain price, Bergman said. But the county might be able to get the service at a lower cost. If they don’t get that information before September, she said, then they’ll have nowhere to turn except HSHV.
At this point, McDaniel walked into the room and delivered a cup of coffee to Bergman, joking that it was “anti-grouch juice.”
Rolland Sizemore Jr. described the situation as a mess. In preparing the 2012 budget, the county administration hadn’t discussed how much to cut back on the HSHV payment before making the budget proposal late last year, he said.
By way of background, until Dec. 31, 2011, the county had paid HSHV $500,000 annually. The 2012 budget approved by the county board in late 2011 cut funding for animal control services to $250,000, although commissioners also discussed the possibility of paying an additional $180,000 to HSHV – if the nonprofit took over work previously done by the county’s animal control officers. That brought the total amount budgeted for animal control to $430,000 in 2012. HSHV officials rejected that contract offer, saying that even $500,000 wasn’t sufficient to cover costs for all the work they do.
Through mid-February 2012, the county and HSHV operated under a $29,000 month-by-month contract, while trying to reach a new agreement. At the county board’s Feb. 15 meeting, commissioners approved a $415,000 contract with HSHV that will provide animal control services for the county through Dec. 31, 2012. [.pdf of current HSHV contract] The intent was to give the county time to develop and issue a request for proposals (RFP) later this year to solicit bids for the next contract.
At the June 29 meeting, Sizemore said he didn’t want to rush things. He noted that the county had already looked for outside service providers, but didn’t find any that could do the work of HSHV. Smith pointed out that Sizemore was referring to the county’s search for an interim service provider – the county didn’t issue an RFP for taking over the animal control work permanently.
Sizemore then complained that not enough commissioners are involved in this discussion – that’s part of the problem, he said. [The only commissioners who have attended the three full meetings of the policy task force are Conan Smith, Rob Turner and Wes Prater. Others who have attended at least one of the meetings: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Ronnie Peterson, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Dan Smith. Leah Gunn and Alicia Ping have not attended any of the three full task force meetings, which have been held on weekday mornings.]
Sizemore stressed that HSHV provides the best quality service. He again stated that he didn’t want to rush things.
At this point, Conan Smith told the group that he wanted to sidebar this conversation. He could hear the tension around the table, and he vowed to have a “fulsome” discussion with all commissioners. The sheriff’s work group is developing a cost structure, Smith noted. When the policy task force has finished its work, that policy information will be sent to the sheriff’s work group so that the group can provide a cost estimate for each level of service. That will provide a standard from which the board of commissioners can make its decisions, he said.
Levels of Service
Belinda Dulin, executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center, told commissioners that she appreciated the passion she heard around the table. Their task today was to finish the serviceability matrix that they had started to develop at the June 13 meeting, she said. [.pdf of serviceability matrix]
The intent is to identify different levels of potential service, from a baseline minimum or mandated service (Level 1), through increased levels of service that the county might want to provide beyond its state mandate. Level 3, for example, would be the best level that could be provided, if cost were not a factor. The mandated level is based on research by Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel, who has summarized the county’s mandates in a memo to commissioners. [.pdf of Hedger's memo]
Dulin noted that at the next meeting (on July 25) the group is planning to tackle the issue of cost for those different serviceability levels.
Levels of Service: Discussion at June 13 Meeting
The matrix includes three categories of services and duties: (1) the county’s general legal obligations; (2) mandated services/duties; and (3) non-mandated services/duties. Line items within each category are:
General Legal Obligations:
- Licensing of dogs
- Licensing of kennels
- Duty to hold unlicensed dogs (4 business days), licensed dogs (7 business days) and dogs, cats, or ferrets (10 business days if suspected of rabies)
- Euthanize abandoned strays
- Dangerous animal to be held pending the outcome of legal proceedings – owner is financially responsible.
- Any law enforcement officer can bring a dog-fighting animal to a shelter at any time.
- Any animal found in an animal cruelty case must be held for a minimum of 14 business days, following an initial 72 hours during which an owner can claim the animal.
- Urgent medical attention
- Palliative care
- Cruelty investigation
- Long-term care
- Ownership identification
- Emergency identification
- Respond to nuisance complaints
The commissioners who attended the June 13 – Conan Smith, Felicia Brabec, Wes Prater and Rob Turner – had already worked through a portion of the matrix related to mandated services. The following is a summary of the general consensus reached at that meeting.
For licensing, Level 1 was described as the current service, with licenses required for all dogs older than six months. The proposed Level 2 would allow animal owners to buy licenses from veterinarians, in addition to local government offices. Level 2 would also entail the county increasing its enforcement efforts to ensure compliance with dog licensing. For Level 3, the county would require that cats and exotic animals be licensed, in addition to dogs.
For the licensing of kennels, the current level is the baseline – if you operate a kennel, you come to the county for a license. Conan Smith had argued that Level 2 should entail enforcement, to ensure that all kennels are complying. Level 3 could be inspections of licensed kennels.
For the mandate to hold a stray animal, Level 1 is the base requirement for dogs – four business days if unlicensed, or seven business days if licensed. For dogs, cats or ferrets, the law requires holding for 10 business days if they are suspected of having rabies. Commissioners discussed setting Level 2 as a more robust information-sharing approach to help owners locate strays, as the HSHV currently does by posting information about found animals online. Level 3 could entail keeping all animals until they are adopted.
Regarding the euthanization of abandoned strays, the county at minimum has a mandated duty to euthanize if strays are not claimed by their owners. There did not seem to be a clear consensus among commissioners at the June 13 meeting about higher levels of service – that is, how long should the county pay to hold strays before they are euthanized. Conan Smith advocated for euthanization to be the last resort, but Wes Prater was concerned about cost.
At the June 13 meeting, the group also discussed the non-mandated services of urgent medical attention, with the first level being to address the immediate emergency medical needs of an animal, such as dealing with a broken leg or open wound. There were no other levels in this category.
Levels of Service: Non-Mandated Services
At the June 29 meeting, Crystal Collin of the Dispute Resolution Center facilitated the discussion and started with items related to non-mandated services. She began with the first item that had been addressed at the June 13 meeting – urgent medical attention.
Barbara Bergman, who had not attended that meeting, asked for clarification about what urgent medical attention means. If a leg needs to be amputated, for example, is that done? Jenny Paillon, HSHV director of operations – who has attended all the meetings as an observer – told commissioners that HSHV provides palliative care, but only takes extra measures if the owner comes forward. Conan Smith noted that an extra level is required in animal cruelty cases as well.
Bergman wanted more information about what would trigger specific kinds of emergency attention, and what it would cost. ”There are only so many body parts, and only so much you can do to an animal,” she said.
Levels of Service: Non-Mandated Services – Animal Cruelty
Barbara Bergman wanted to know what happens if an animal cruelty investigation doesn’t result in prosecution – does the county still bear the cost of that investigation? Yes, Conan Smith replied. Jenny Paillon of the HSHV noted that the animal cruelty law provides a definition of animal cruelty. [.pdf of Michigan animal cruelty statutes]
Bergman expressed concern about how to determine whether to investigate. It would be possible to investigate “ad nauseum,” she said. Rob Turner pointed out that the sheriff’s work group has been provided with a breakdown of information related to animal cruelty calls. [.pdf of animal cruelty data] He noted that only 5% of cases lead to prosecution.
In that case, Bergman said, that’s a lot of investigative service that she didn’t think the county should be paying for. She did not want to pay to educate the public about what constitutes cruelty, for example. The Humane Society has endowments and donors for such things, she said. Conan Smith replied that it’s a question of the minimum level of service, compared to additional services that the county might want. Paillon later noted that many of the HSHV donor funds are designated for particular programs, and can’t be used to pay for county mandated services.
Commissioners talked about the need to bring county prosecutor Brian Mackie into the conversation, to talk about what triggers prosecution. Smith noted that if an owner is prosecuted, that person is obligated to cover the costs associated with the case. Recovery of those costs can be difficult, however.
Smith said that the Level 1 service for animal cruelty is to cover the cost of prosecution – that’s a state mandate.
Bergman again stressed that the county shouldn’t pay for education. Rob Turner pointed out that in the long run, educating people about how to care for their animals might be cheaper than covering the cost of an investigation. Paillon clarified that HSHV doesn’t hold classes or anything like that. Rather, if they get a call about a possible animal cruelty case, they go out and talk to the owner to see if the animal is getting proper care. If it’s a borderline case, she said, they’ll give the owner a chance to correct the situation rather than immediately pursuing prosecution.
Wes Prater said that nowhere in the animal cruelty law does it mention education. The issue is one of law enforcement, he said.
Smith also wanted to clarify what triggers an investigation. Is it just a phone call from someone, or does a formal complaint have to be filed? There’s a question of volume, he said.
Levels of Service: Non-Mandated Services – Long-Term Care
Conan Smith said that long-term care is an issue that relates to more than just palliative care, which he described as Level 1. The second level could be to determine a certain amount of time during which the county would invest in helping an animal recuperate. Level 3 could be bringing an animal to full health and caring for it until adoption, he said.
Barbara Bergman pointed out that the state mandate relates only to dogs. What about cows, for example – how would that be handled? she asked. Where would the county house a herd?
Smith noted that animal cruelty laws apply to all animals, not just dogs. That’s why the question of forfeiture is so important, he said. The owner is supposed to bear the cost, but in fact it becomes the county’s cost because the owner often doesn’t pay. “So we have to take care of Bossy and her sisters?” Bergman asked. Yes, Smith said, until the owner forfeits ownership. At that point, though, the county’s mandate ends, he said.
Rob Turner had framed it well at the May 23 task force meeting, Smith said – saying the issue is finding balance between the mandated duty and the county’s moral duty of compassion.
Bergman replied that her compassion is for human beings who don’t have food or shelter. She doesn’t want to be considered uncompassionate just because she wants the county’s funding to be spent on humans. Smith agreed, saying the conversation needs to include a variety of interests.
Levels of Service: Non-Mandated Services – Owner Identification
The county doesn’t have a mandate to identify the owners of stray animals. The task force seemed to reach a consensus that a Level 2 of service would be to support online efforts to identify owners. Jenny Paillon of the HSHV indicated that the web-based approach is the best option, so the group did not identify additional levels of service beyond that.
The item of emergency identification was eliminated, as it seemed to overlap with owner identification.
Levels of Service: Non-Mandated Services – Respond to Nuisance Complaints
After a brief discussion, commissioners decided to eliminate this item, as it seemed to relate to law enforcement rather than animal control.
Levels of Service: Non-Mandated Services – Adoption
Barbara Bergman felt that the county had no obligation to be involved in adopting out animals. Conan Smith argued that if a stray animal is adopted out fast, the county will pay less because the animal won’t be held as many days. Jenny Paillon of the HSHV added that adopting out an animal also eliminates the cost of euthanizing it – those costs work out to about $40 per animal, depending on its size. “But it might take forever” to adopt, Bergman replied.
The group seemed to arrive at a consensus that Level 2 would provide for holding an animal longer than the minimum number of days required by law, with the hope that it would be adopted. Level 3 would be that every animal is held until it is adopted.
Levels of Service: Mandated – Dangerous Animals
Commissioners also addressed items in the mandated category that had not been covered at the June 13 meeting. Dangerous animals are required to be held pending the outcome of legal proceedings, and the owner is financially responsible. Conan Smith said county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie should be involved in this conversation. The mandate requires that the county hold the animal for at least 72 hours, but unless the owner forfeits the animal, the county is required to hold the animal until the end of legal proceedings.
If the county can develop a policy with Mackie so that Mackie’s office would regularly request forfeiture, “it opens up our options,” Smith said.
Rob Turner noted that this issue was also discussed at the sheriff’s work group. There could be huge costs savings with the approach that Smith described, he said.
Barbara Bergman brought up the example of cows again – where would a herd of cows be housed, and who would pay for that? That’s when different levels of service would be triggered, Smith replied. He joked that if someone is a “destitute cow abuser” and can’t pay for housing the herd during legal proceedings, then the county has to decide what it’s willing to pay for.
Wes Prater pointed out that this isn’t a county board decision – because the law leaves it entirely up to the county prosecutor to determine whether to request forfeiture. Smith said he thought Mackie would be amenable to developing a policy with the board.
As the June 29 session wrapped up, Belinda Dulin of the Dispute Resolution Center noted that there were a few issues that had been tabled but that would need to be addressed at some point: (1) how to identify other potential service providers; (2) how to determine indirect costs; and (3) reaching out to the county prosecutor and judges to include them in this discussion.
Conan Smith stressed the importance of including county prosecutor Brian Mackie and county treasurer Catherine McClary into the conversation, saying they have tremendous influence over cost and recovery issues.
Rob Turner said the sheriff’s work group will pull together a document to identify costs for the levels of service that are described by the policy task force. Members of the work group then could meet with the policy task force to review those costs. Barbara Bergman noted that Jenny Paillon of the HSHV had been very helpful, but Bergman didn’t want to expand the meetings to include people who aren’t part of the task force or work group. She noted that the meetings were open to the public, and anyone could come to observe.
Smith suggested that at the July 25 meeting, both groups would merge into one for the remaining discussions, to talk about costs and scope of services.
Paillon said that HSHV is also working on ideas for generating new revenue, and those ideas could be presented at the July 25 meeting.
County administrator Verna McDaniel noted that some of the other municipalities with animal control ordinances have requirements and services that are different than the county. “We need to respect that,” she said. Smith told commissioners that they had been given copies of those ordinances to review – for the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township. [.pdf of Ann Arbor animal control ordinance] [.pdf of Ypsilanti animal control ordinance] [.pdf of Ypsilanti Township animal control ordinance]
Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec (arrived at 8:40 a.m.), Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi (arrived at 9:20 a.m.), Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Dan Smith (left at 9 a.m.), Rob Turner. Also from the county administration: Verna McDaniel, Greg Dill.
Next meeting: Wednesday, July 25, 8-10 a.m. in the lower level of the county administration building, 200 N. Main St., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle events listing to confirm date and location]
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