Next Steps on County’s Animal Control Policy

Task force meets: mandate vs. mission, costs vs. conscience

Washtenaw County board of commissioners – animal control task force meeting (May 23, 2012): Five of the 11 county commissioners gathered on Wednesday to start talking about a policy for animal control services in Washtenaw County.

Rob Turner

At the May 23 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners' task force on animal control services, commissioner Rob Turner discusses the different service levels the county could provide. Turner is also the board's liaison to a work group led by sheriff Jerry Clayton that's developing a cost analysis of animal control services. (Photos by the writer.)

It was the second meeting scheduled. The first one – on May 9 – was canceled after only two commissioners showed up. The intent is to set policy that will guide a request for proposals that the county plans to issue later this year, for its next contract to provide animal control services. Those services are currently handled by the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV), in a contract that expires at the end of 2012.

The wide-ranging discussion revealed tensions between the push to control costs – a point that’s been driving these changes – and a desire by some to provide a higher level of service than what’s mandated by the state. There seemed to be at least some initial consensus that while the state mandate focuses on stray dogs and animal cruelty, the county should support a broader range of animal control services, depending on the cost.

Also discussed was the need to bring more communities into the conversation – at least those that have their own animal control ordinances, including Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. Representatives from those municipalities are participating in a separate work group, led by sheriff Jerry Clayton, that’s developing a cost structure for animal control services. The hope is that other communities will also give financial support to HSHV, or possibly another service provider.

Four additional task force meetings are scheduled: on June 13, July 25, Aug. 22 and Sept. 12. All meetings are open to the public and will provide an opportunity for public commentary. They’ll take place from 8-10 a.m. at the county’s Learning Resource Center, 4135 Washtenaw Ave., and are being facilitated by representatives of the Dispute Resolution Center.

Animal Control Services: Background

When it developed the 2012-2013 budget, the county board decided to reduce funding for animal control services, which it has handled through a contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV). Until Dec. 31, 2011, the county had paid HSHV $500,000 annually. The budget originally 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 the HSHV that will provide animal control services for the county just 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.

Also at that Feb. 15 meeting, the county board passed a resolution creating two entities – a policy task force and a work group –  to work through issues related to animal control services. [.pdf of Feb. 15 resolution] The work group, led by sheriff Jerry Clayton, is tasked with developing a methodology to determine the cost of providing animal control services. The work group includes representatives from HSHV, the county, and other municipalities that have animal control ordinances.

The task force was created for county commissioners to develop a policy that would guide the work group. Commissioners had set a May 15 deadline for an initial report from the task force, but that goal was not met. The first meeting of the task force, on May 9, was canceled after only two commissioners showed up – board chair Conan Smith, who had organized the meeting, and Barbara Bergman.

At the May 23 task force meeting, turnout was better – five commissioners attended: Smith, Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi and Rob Turner. The meeting was also attended by four people affiliated with the Dispute Resolution Center, as well as county administrator Verna McDaniel and deputy county clerk Peter Simms, who took minutes. One member of the public was present: Kate Murphy, an HSHV volunteer. There was opportunity for public commentary at the end of the meeting, but by then Murphy had left.

Smith had prepared a binder with 115 pages of documents related to animal control issues. [.pdf of binder documents] He started the discussion by describing the focus of the task force: to identify the county’s mandated animal control services, and their minimum level of serviceability. That’s a level that might not be the amount of service the county wants to provide, he said, but it’s what Washtenaw County has to provide. The decision of the policy task force will be communicated to the work group that’s led by the sheriff, Smith continued, which will report back to the board regarding what it would cost to implement the policy and provide those services.

Smith noted that the county’s labor negotiations have been using interest-based bargaining for several years. It’s an approach that’s widely used at the federal level, he said, but generally it hasn’t been embraced by state or local governments. He said it can be a powerful tool for developing public policy, and it’s a technique that the Dispute Resolution Center uses – that’s why he asked the DRC to help with this task force work.

Animal Control: What’s the Goal?

Belinda Dulin, executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center, was one of four DRC facilitators who attended the May 23 meeting. She told commissioners that the DRC would be a neutral facilitator – the center had no horse in this race, she said. Dulin noted that this isn’t a new discussion for commissioners, and she asked them to start by describing their ideal outcome.

County administrator Verna McDaniel began by saying she’d like the board to set a policy to guide what animal control services the county buys. While county officials should be clear that in an ideal world they’d like to provide full services, she said, there is also the need for cost containment. The services that the county has been receiving from the Humane Society of Huron Valley are excellent, McDaniel said – there’s no doubt about the quality. But the county is now in an era that requires defining those services and having a plan on how to pay for them. A policy would be very helpful in making budget projections, she said, as well as in monitoring the quality and level of services provided.

McDaniel concluded by saying she’d like the outcome of these discussions to be a clear determination of what services the county is purchasing, and projections of the costs and levels of those services.

Yousef Rabhi said he agreed with everything McDaniel said. The reason this conversation is happening is because of the county’s budget situation, he said. It’s not because commissioners don’t care about animals. The county board needs to know what they’re buying and how to budget for it, based on the levels of service they want to provide. He said his stance on the mandate is based on months of discussion by the board, and by a comprehensive report that the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger, has provided regarding the mandate and minimum serviceability levels as required by state law. He noted that HSHV representatives had given input to the document, and it’s quite comprehensive. It should be their guiding document, Rabhi said. [.pdf of Hedger's memo]

The memo summarizes the county’s legal obligations in this way:

The County is responsible for the housing of stray dogs under the Dog Law of 1919. The County must pay for those dogs to be boarded for the statutory holding period of 4 days if the dog has a collar, license or other indicia of ownership or 7 days if it does not have such evidence of ownership. After this holding period, the dog could be euthanized and the county would have no further responsibility for the animal.

The County has no similar financial responsibility for other stray animals. While a county may, by ordinance, create an animal control agency to address the handling of these other species, Washtenaw County has never adopted such an ordinance and thus is not generally responsible for these animals.

The County has no financial responsibility for animals boarded under the Dangerous Animal or Fighting Dog laws as the acts specifically allocate the cost of boarding any animals under those laws, to the animal’s owner.

The County would have financial responsibility to pay for animals boarded under the general animal cruelty law found in MCLA 750.49-53. However, the two main sections involving animal cruelty, MCLA 750.50 and MCLA 750.50b both provide a process for the animal to be forfeited to the animal control or protection shelter. In addition, each of these acts encourages judges to assess boarding costs against the animal’s owner.

Finally, under the Public Health Code, the county would be responsible for holding certain animals suspected of having come into contact with a rabid animal for a period of time up to 10 days depending upon whether the animal was a stray, had indicia of ownership etc.

Rabhi said that after the cost of those minimum levels of service is determined, then the county can see what additional services they can afford.

Sally Brush

Sally Brush of the Dispute Resolution Center takes notes during the May 23 meeting of the county board's animal control task force. She was one of four people from the DRC who helped facilitate the meeting.

Ronnie Peterson was brief in stating his desired outcome: How can the county go beyond its mandate, and keep its reputation for providing excellent services.

Wes Prater began by saying he was learning things he hadn’t heard before. The document from Hedger was very informative, he said. [Although other commissioners told him that Hedger's memo had been distributed last fall, Prater contended that he hadn't previously received it.] The mandate is the minimum, Prater said, though he added that he agreed with Peterson – they should also look at levels of service that have been historically provided.

Residents need to understand that revenues are shrinking, Prater said: “That’s just the way it is, and we have to live with what we’ve got.” Yet Prater also wanted to see what HSHV believes are the appropriate levels of service. For example, although mandates relate to dogs and not cats, the county has a significant feral cat problem, he said. [HSHV has a program to help manage the feral cat population by capturing, neutering, then returning the cats to their original habitat.]

Rob Turner noted that he serves as the board’s liaison to the work group that’s developing a cost structure for animal control services. He said there are three questions commissioners need to answer: (1) Are they looking at animal control from a state-mandate perspective? (2) Are they looking at it from the perspective of cost structure? (3) Are they making decisions based on their conscience?

The county must be safe for its residents and humane to its animals, Turner said, but the definition of “humane” is open to interpretation. Ultimately, the county also has to live within its budget, he said. The mandate for the work group is to determine the cost of current services – that report is supposed to be ready in mid-June. Does that influence the board’s policy? he asked. Can the county only afford its mandate? Or does the board follow its conscience – and at what cost?

Developing a Cost Structure

Although it’s the sheriff’s work group that is charged with developing a detailed cost analysis for animal control services, much of the discussion at the May 23 task force meeting centered on this issue, too.

Rob Turner noted that the Humane Society of Huron Valley is working on an itemized list of costs, similar to the costs that were detailed for a police services unit. [For background on that effort, see Chronicle coverage: "Washtenaw OKs Price for Police Services"] With an itemized list, he said, the board can see what it can afford, and make decisions based in part on that. He noted that the police services costs were itemized down to the price for ammunition in a gun. With a list like that, he said, the county would have flexibility to make choices.

Conan Smith observed that the itemized cost report is due on June 12, and could be discussed at the June 13 meeting of the policy task force. Task force members could give their feedback on it, he said, and that feedback could be communicated to the work group.

Turner cautioned that the June 12 date might be overly optimistic – it’s been asked for, but it wasn’t clear if it would be delivered. He said that when he initially requested the itemized costs, Tanya Hilgendorf, HSHV’s executive director, had said it couldn’t be done. When he told her it had to be done, Turner said she “begrudgingly agreed.” Unless sheriff Jerry Clayton holds the HSHV’s feet to the fire, Turner said he was afraid that the county would end up where it has in the past – with a generalized cost estimate, but not an itemized list of costs. Turner said it was important to have an accurate cost analysis, because that ultimately will determine the county’s policy for years to come.

Yousef Rabhi noted that an itemized list would be helpful so that the county could identify appropriate funding sources. For example, if a certain amount is used for gas in HSHV vehicles, the county might be able to fund that item from its fuel purchasing account, rather than the general fund.

Turner said that HSHV regularly brings up the animal cruelty case at a Salem Township horse farm late last year, as an example of expenses that the organization incurs and that the county is mandated to cover. But he said that’s an anomaly, like the mid-March tornado that struck the Dexter area. “Sure, you’ll have a cow every once in a while,” he said, but it’s something you just have to deal with when it happens – it can’t be built into a budget.

Wes Prater

County commissioner Wes Prater.

Rabhi replied that animal cruelty cases fall under the state mandate, and are the county’s responsibility. That’s true, Turner said, but how do you budget for that kind of emergency?

Wes Prater suggested having a line-item for emergencies, based on the county’s best guess. Ronnie Peterson noted that HSHV should expect reasonable compensation for its work.

Peterson asked how the work group’s cost analysis would impact the deliberations of the task force. Smith said that he and Clayton have talked through the roles of each group and how the two entities interact. There needs to be a lot of information-sharing, he said. The task force is heavily dependent on the HSHV for information about costs, and the work group will be guided in part by the board’s policy. At some point, the two groups will need to merge, Smith said.

Another factor is that the scope goes beyond just the board of commissioners, Smith added. More members of the executive branch of county government need to be involved, he said – the treasurer and county prosecuting attorney, in addition to the sheriff. [The treasurer administers dog licenses. The prosecuting attorney's office handles animal cruelty cases.]

For example, Smith said, he wasn’t sure whether the county prosecuting attorney, Brian Mackie, regularly requests the release of animals from their owners in animal cruelty cases – asking the court to require that the animals be turned over to HSHV. The judges need to be part of the conversation too, he said. In animal cruelty cases, the law says the burden of cost – for the boarding and care of animals during the case – is on the owner. But often the owners don’t have the means to pay, he noted. Prater observed that judges have a lot of leeway in assessing fees, if the owner has the wherewithal to pay.

Smith reminded the group that the issue of cost recovery is a topic for the July 25 meeting of the task force – it’s a big issue. Prater disagreed, saying there are very few cruelty cases to deal with. Smith replied that although there might be a small number of cases, the issue is complex.

In terms of revenue, Turner noted that licensing is another source. He said the balance needs to be just right, however – if a license costs too much, people won’t pay. He also floated the possibility of licensing cats, which prompted Prater to respond: “Hold it right there! If you want to license cats, you’re opening the barn door.” Belinda Dulin of the DRC noted that the general topic of revenue is part of the focus of the task force’s July 25 meeting.

Tom Brush with the DRC asked whether the board conducts this kind of process for each of its funding decisions. Prater noted that it was used for resolving issues with police services, but that took several years to develop and only really got started after sheriff Clayton was elected. Rabhi added that the animal control process is slightly different, in that there are two groups – a policy task force, and cost work group – that are on parallel tracks.

What Type of Services?

In addressing the question of service levels, Conan Smith returned to Rob Turner’s earlier framing of the issue – cost and conscience. County administrator Verna McDaniel had indicated that the county needs a blend of the two, Smith said.

Wes Prater observed that everything hinges on revenue – “that’s where the rub’s gonna be,” he said.

Smith continued by noting that the state mandate breaks the county’s responsibilities into two areas: stray dogs, and animal cruelty. For him, there are a handful of questions that the board needs to answer related to serviceability in those areas. How long does the county keep an animal? The law isn’t clear about that, Smith said. In animal cruelty cases, some animals are held more than a year – that goes beyond the mandate, he said.

Turner noted that in animal cruelty cases, the county is required to keep the animal until the trial or the case comes to completion, or until the owner signs over the rights to the animal – which in many cases, the owners won’t do, he said. Otherwise, the number of days for holding animals is laid out (between 4-7 days) but that’s where the difference between mandate and mission emerges, Turner said. If the Humane Society’s mission is to hold animals longer than that, then that’s the nonprofit’s responsibility.

Or that could be the conscience piece of the county’s policy, Smith added. True, Turner replied, but conscience comes with a cost. It’s sad to say, but there needs to be cost controls on conscience, he said. So until the board gets information on cost, they can’t make a final decision about policy.

Prater observed that the difference between his conscience and someone else’s “might be miles apart.” That’s true with the 11 commissioners, and even more so with citizens throughout the county. “And I don’t know where to go with that one,” he said.

When the 1919 dog law was passed, stray dogs were the big issue, Ronnie Peterson said. But today, he added, animal control should be broader than that.

Mission vs. Mandate

Wes Prater suggested that the board step back from the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Instead of talking about HSHV, they should be asking what the scope of service would be for the RFP (request for proposals).

Rob Turner countered that HSHV is a big piece of the discussion. The county in the past has made a big commitment to the organization – helping secure financing for its new facility, and contributing a lot of money to that. And until the latest budget cycle, the county has given HSHV the funds it has requested, he said.

Ronnie Peterson

County commissioner Ronnie Peterson. In the background is Kate Murphy, a volunteer with the Humane Society of Huron Valley who attended the meeting as an observer.

Ronnie Peterson argued that HSHV volunteers and donors are the people who help keep costs down – that makes a big difference. The only other organization that comes close might be the homeless shelter, he said. [The Delonis Center in Ann Arbor, run by the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, was a project spearheaded by the county.]

The relationship between the county and HSHV is a two-way partnership, Peterson said, and it saves the county money. The board needs to look at the benefits that HSHV brings to the county, he added. That needs to be a factor as they develop an animal control policy.

Conan Smith said he appreciated Peterson’s comment. The county’s state mandate is for dogs, but the community mandate is likely broader, he said. If the county were to start an animal control department from scratch, Smith said he’d ask: (1) What do we want to do? and (2) What revenues do we have? Donors could be one revenue stream, he noted, and it’s important to embrace the fact that revenues from donors contribute to animal control.

Prater again said the conversation should move away from HSHV – a dog pound is required by the state, but that’s very different from the mission of the HSHV.

County administrator Verna McDaniel noted that the HSHV has a unique goal of achieving a 100% save rate, and that’s commendable, she said. On the other hand, the county’s mandate is to protect the health and safety of residents. To marry those two perspectives is virtually impossible, she said, from the standpoint of the county’s budget. So what middle ground can they find that’s satisfactory to both?

The county doesn’t have any business trying to change the mission of the HSHV, McDaniel said. But the county does have a responsibility to all its residents. These are rugged times. Every time you turn around, you face erosion of another revenue source, she said. Many things are beyond the county’s control, she added, but somehow the county needs to figure out a policy that allows them to meet their goals.

Everyone recognizes the value of the excellent services provided by HSHV, McDaniel continued, and the county would like to see HSHV continue providing those services. “The problem is the cost,” she said.

Smith said he was thinking about the issue politically, too. There’s a divide among commissioners – some believe the county should only provide the minimum mandated services, while at least one commissioner would spend any spare dime to provide animal welfare. The board needs to articulate the minimum level of service as a starting point, he said, then have a conversation about how far above the minimum they should go. If commissioners can agree on a minimum level of services and the cost of those services, at least they’ll know what the floor is for budgeting purposes.

Turner observed that the HSHV is a tool for determining costs to help guide the county in determining its policy and writing an RFP for services. But the policy that’s developed should not specifically reference HSHV, he said. “It has to be a generic policy.”

Turner also noted that most of the animals that come to the HSHV aren’t brought in by the county’s animal control officers. Most animals are brought by people off the street, he said. “If someone brings in a box of kitties they found on the side of the road, is that our responsibility?” If it’s not, he observed, that cuts the county’s costs in half.

Prater said there are two different issues – a state-mandated dog pound, and the HSHV’s mission of taking care of animals. He said he’s as passionate about taking care of animals as anyone, but the question is whether that’s the county’s role.

Belinda Dulin of the DRC suggested that it might be helpful to start using the term “service provider” rather than HSHV.

Ronnie Peterson said he didn’t understand how the county could look at other service providers aside from HSHV. How can commissioners use a formula to value the hundreds of donors and volunteers that HSHV brings to the table? The police services discussion didn’t have that element, he said.

Smith replied that HSHV has now agreed to work with the county’s finance staff, and he was sure they could come up with a cost structure that reflects in-kind contributions. If that’s the case, Peterson said, then perhaps it also could be used as a model for funding other agencies – like human service nonprofits – that the county supports financially.

Bringing Others to the Table

Belinda Dulin of the DRC asked about the other partners in this process, in addition to the county board. Verna McDaniel noted that the city of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township both have animal control ordinances, but haven’t historically paid the HSHV for animal control services. Conan Smith said the city of Ypsilanti also has an animal control ordinance. [.pdf of Ann Arbor animal control ordinance] [.pdf of Ypsilanti animal control ordinance] [.pdf of Ypsilanti Township animal control ordinance]

Belinda Dulin

Belinda Dulin, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, moderated the discussion at the May 23 task force meeting.

McDaniel said she sees these communities as partners, and there might be others. The county has been paying HSHV for animal control services, and has also budgeted for two animal control officers in the sheriff’s department. Costs have been approaching $1 million annually, she said. Other communities with animal control ordinances are significant stakeholders in this process, she said – that’s one reason why the county wanted to use the police services model to develop a cost structure. [Representatives from communities that contract with the county for sheriff deputy patrols were involved in developing the cost model for that service.]

Smith noted that two-thirds of the animals brought to HSHV come from communities with animal control ordinances.

Ronnie Peterson argued that if the county sees these communities as a major resource, then representatives from those communities should be at the table to develop an animal control policy. And in fact, he said, all communities in the county have a stake – everyone should be at the table. Resources should come from each community in the county, he said.

Wes Prater pointed out that it’s the county’s mandate to take care of stray dogs and animal cruelty cases. They’ll have a hard time convincing other communities to help pay for that, he said.

That’s why clarifying the mandate is so important, Smith replied. The mandate goes to a certain level, but many community ordinances go beyond that, so those communities should share the costs. But no one can have a conversation about that until a mandated level of service is determined, he said.

Turner noted that Ypsilanti Township and the cities of Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor each have a representative on the sheriff’s work group. Peterson said all communities should be involved in that group, too.

Further, Peterson said communities that don’t have animal control ordinances should adopt them, and come to the table with resources. Prater wondered how those communities could be enticed to do that.

Next Steps

Conan Smith suggested that he work with county administrator Verna McDaniel and corporation counsel Curtis Hedger to develop a draft statement outlining the county’s minimum level of responsibilities. That would be brought to the next task force meeting, on June 13.

Rob Turner said he was interested in seeing court rulings on this issue, noting that the HSHV has argued that the 1919 legislation mandating animal control has been modified by the courts since then. Smith replied that there are just two applicable court cases and a handful of attorney general opinions – and most of them date back several decades. The courts have not spoken clearly, he said, so it’s incumbent on local units of government to interpret the mandate. [.pdf of 1919 dog law legislation] [.pdf of court rulings] [.pdf of attorney general opinions]

The board can determine the minimum, Smith said, so the next step should be figuring out what to do beyond that. Turner said the question is based on conscience, and the public will help inform the answer. The board needs to find out the community’s collective conscience regarding animal welfare, he said, and make policy decisions based on that. Some say it should be based on just the mandate, while some feel much more should be done, he said. Turner characterized his own views as in the middle.

Ronnie Peterson felt they should at least keep the current level of service provided by HSHV.

Wes Prater cautioned that the board shouldn’t just listen to the people who come and speak during public commentary. [In the past, HSHV supporters have been vocal in their support, attending county board meetings and demonstrating outside of the county administration building.] The public at large should be included, he said. A lot of people – including his wife, who thinks their cat is a person – are supportive of a higher level of service, he said, but a lot of others aren’t. He reminded commissioners that thousands of Washtenaw County residents don’t have health insurance, and many live in poverty.

Peterson said he didn’t think he would attend future meetings of the task force. Everyone knew his position, he said. Belinda Dulin of the DRC told him she hoped he’d reconsider.

Four more meetings of this policy group are scheduled from 8-10 a.m. at the county’s Learning Resource Center, 4135 Washtenaw Ave.:

  • June 13: Preferred serviceability levels
  • July 25: Revenue and cost recovery options
  • Aug. 22: Scope of services and revenue recommendations
  • Sept. 12: Final recommendations and RFP

All meetings are open to the public and will be facilitated by members of the Dispute Resolution Center.

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