Revenue Options Eyed for Animal Control

Ideas: Letting vets, HSHV offer dog licenses; adding cat licenses

At a recent task force meeting held outdoors due to a power outage, Washtenaw County commissioners focused on possible ways to generate more revenue for animal control services – the latest topic in a series of policy task force meetings on that general issue.

Mike Walsh, Mark Heusel, Jenny Paillon

From left: Mike Walsh and Mark Heusel, board members of the Humane Society of Huron Valley, and Jenny Paillon, HSHV’s director of operations, at a July 25, 2012 Washtenaw County board of commissioners’ animal control policy task force meeting. The session was held outside at the Learning Resource Center on Washtenaw Avenue near the county jail – because at the time electricity was out in that area of town. (Photos by the writer.)

The idea is that if more revenue is available to cover costs, the county can contract out for a higher level of service – beyond what’s mandated by the state. The question of what the county is obligated to do regarding animal control services, and how much those services cost, has been a contentious issue since the last budget cycle. That’s when county commissioners cut the amount allocated to the contract with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, which has provided animal control services to the county on a the  basis of that contract. A new contract was negotiated with HSHV at a lower rate; and that arrangement ends on Dec. 31, 2012.

The current contract with HSHV was approved at the county board’s Feb. 15, 2012 meeting. At that same meeting, the board created its policy task force and a separate work group, led by sheriff Jerry Clayton, to develop a cost structure for those services. These two groups are laying the groundwork for soliciting proposals later this year for an entity to handle the county’s animal control services. HSHV is viewed by many commissioners as the preferred agency to continue handling this work. Representatives of the nonprofit have attended the policy task force meetings, and are members of the sheriff’s work group.

A discussion at the task force’s previous meeting on June 29 had indicated that representatives from other communities with their own animal control ordinances – Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – would be invited to participate at the July 25 session. That didn’t happen, though it will likely occur at a future meeting. Commissioners also had planned to invite county prosecuting attorney Brian Mackie –as his office has purview over prosecuting animal cruelty cases and other legal issues related to animal control, which have an impact on expenses. Board chair Conan Smith reported that it hadn’t been possible for Mackie to attend.

Several revenue options were discussed on July 25, but no clear consensus was reached about which of them to pursue. Ideas included (1) licensing cats and exotic animals, like snakes; (2) allowing veterinarians to issue licenses; (3) easing other roadblocks to licensing; (4) taking a summer census of animals, then following up to ensure that the animals are licensed; and (5) making the lack of a license a civil infraction, rather than a misdemeanor. This would allow the county to impose fines, rather than jail time.

The next session is set for Thursday, Aug. 9 at 2 p.m. at the county administration building, 200 N. Main in Ann Arbor. It’s expected to include both the policy task force and the sheriff’s work group, and set the stage for an Aug. 22 meeting that would include staff from the county prosecutor’s office and judiciary. A recommendation and RFP (request for proposals) are expected to be presented to the board in September.

For additional background on this issue, see Chronicle coverage: “Work Continues on Animal Control Policy” and ”Next Steps on Animal Control Policy.” More information related to this process is also posted on the county’s website.

Status of Request for Proposals (RFP)

At the previous task force meeting, on June 29, Washtenaw County commissioner Barbara Bergman had advocated for the county to issue a preliminary RFP (request for proposals) to get responses about costs for a minimum level of service. On July 25, Conan Smith told the group that a draft RFP had been prepared, with a placeholder for inserting the level of service that the county board will determine. It could be “released on a dime,” Smith said, as soon as the board sets the level of service it wants to request. Responding to a query from Wes Prater, Smith confirmed that the RFP had been prepared by the county’s purchasing staff and conformed to procurement policies.

Ronnie Peterson wondered what would happen next regarding the RFP. Smith replied that when the task force determines a recommendation for the level of service to request, that recommendation will go to the full board. It will likely be on the agenda at one of the board meetings in September, he said.

Bergman wanted to know why a recommendation couldn’t be presented at the board’s Aug. 1 meeting. [The board is on a summer schedule, with only one meeting each month.] A recommendation wouldn’t be ready by then, Smith replied. The task force doesn’t have a completed cost analysis yet, for example.

Bergman was concerned about the tight timeline, noting that a recommendation in September only gives the county three months to issue the RFP, get responses and award a contract before year’s end, when the current deal with the Humane Society of Huron Valley expires. County administrator Verna McDaniel said it would be helpful if the board approves a recommendation at its Sept. 5 meeting, rather than waiting for final approval at its meeting on Sept. 19.

Peterson expressed concern about the task force meetings, and said he hoped they were not intended to circumvent the board. If the task force is making any kind of decision, he said, it wasn’t appropriate and he would leave. Smith responded, saying that the board had passed a resolution outlining this process. The task force is intended to develop a policy framework that will guide development of the RFP. [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.]

Ronnie Peterson, Rob Turner

County commissioner Rob Turner. In the background is commissioner Ronnie Peterson. Barely visible between the two commissioners is county administrator Verna McDaniel.

Rob Turner noted that only a few commissioners had consistently participated in the policy task force meetings. He hoped they could schedule a working session in early August on the topic, so that everyone could give input before the recommendation is formally brought to the board. The working session could include representatives from the sheriff’s work group, he said.

Bergman replied that all commissioners were invited to attend these task force meetings – it wasn’t an exclusive group. Turner noted that some commissioners have work obligations that prevent them from attending. [The meetings have been set for certain Wednesdays over the past three months, from 8-10 a.m.]

Smith said he had talked with sheriff Jerry Clayton about the need to merge the two groups – the policy task force, and cost work group – possibly in August. If they are smart and aggressive, he said, they can accommodate the RFP process while having a robust public discussion.

With that, Smith turned the meeting over to Belinda Dulin of the Dispute Resolution Center, who facilitated the remainder of the session.

Sources of Revenue

The focus of the July 25 meeting was on ways to generate more revenue for animal control services. The idea is that if more revenue is available to cover costs, the county can contract out for a higher level of service – beyond what’s mandated by the state.

In framing the task force’s work, Conan Smith explained that part of the job is to look at possible revenue options and decide whether the board needs to change its policies to accommodate those options. For example, if the county decides to implement the licensing of cats, what policies need to be in place to allow that to happen?

Barbara Bergman said they also need to consider the cost involved in implementing these options – what extra staffing would be needed, for example? Later in the meeting, Jenny Paillon, HSHV’s director of operations who has been attending these task force meetings, reminded commissioners that because HSHV must comply with the county’s living wage policy, that adds to the expense of operations. [The living wage applies to contracts with the county valued at more than $10,000 annually. It requires that the contractor pay employees $11.40 per hour if health care benefits are provided, or $13.37 per hour if no benefits are provided. The current amount is set through April 30, 2013.]

Wes Prater expressed concern. There are three communities with their own animal control policies – Ypsilanti Township, and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – but that doesn’t relieve the county of its responsibilities, he said. Prater didn’t think the county should foist off its responsibilities onto these other municipalities, nor should the county craft policies that would conflict with these other units of government. He wondered how the county planned to extract funding from those communities. It’s a real issue, he said, and could result in litigation.

Paillon noted that almost every city or township in Washtenaw County has animal control ordinances, although only the three communities that Prater mentioned have their own licensing. [.pdf of local animal control ordinances] It’s a fragmented approach, she said, and at the sheriff’s work group, they had talked about setting up a more uniform system. She noted that she had given the work group an extensive presentation on this issue, and that she’d be happy to share it.

Yousef Rabhi told Prater that the county wouldn’t be compelling other communities to contribute revenues, but would be helping the communities understand that some local ordinances go above and beyond what the county is required to do, and that costs money. The county should ask other communities to contribute an amount that reflects those expanded services, Rabhi said. Prater wondered what made Rabhi think that approach would be successful.

County administrator Verna McDaniel indicated that she and sheriff Jerry Clayton had already talked about this with officials in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, and didn’t receive any pushback. Those officials seemed open to the idea of contributing revenues, she said.

Sources of Revenue: Specific Options

Conan Smith suggested two revenue options: partnering with other communities, and cat licensing. Wes Prater immediately responded that licensing cats is a bad idea. Barbara Bergman suggested licensing goldfish – but it appeared that she was joking. Sally Brush, a facilitator with the Dispute Resolution Center who was taking notes, translated that suggestion into licensing exotic animals.

Several other ideas were floated in the ensuing discussion, including (1) allowing veterinarians to license dogs; (2) easing other roadblocks to licensing; (3) taking a summer census of animals, then following up to ensure that the animals are licensed; and (4) making the lack of a license a civil infraction, rather than a misdemeanor. This would allow the county to impose fines, rather than jail time.

Crystal Collin, Conan Smith

Crystal Collin of the Dispute Resolution Center talks with Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners.

After a fair amount of discussion – and offers by HSHV representatives, including board vice president Mark Heusel, to share their presentation on revenue-generation strategies – Felicia Brabec asked a process question. If these ideas had already been developed and shared with the sheriff’s work group, she didn’t understand why the policy task force was spending their time brainstorming on the same topic.

Smith acknowledged the tension, but noted that it’s not the role of the sheriff’s work group to develop policy. So the task force needs to discuss the same issue, even though there’s overlap, he said. Then when the two groups come together, everyone will understand the policies they want to explore, and can start to talk about the cost of implementing those policies before making a recommendation to the full board.

Bergman said she was starting to feel this meeting was fruitless. Without knowing the costs of different levels of service, there was no point to the discussion, she said.

Yousef Rabhi said he felt this was the most exciting discussion the task force has had so far. Even if the sheriff’s work group had gone over the same issue, Rabhi felt that the task force might come up with new ideas that hadn’t yet been considered.

Brabec said her point was that the discussion should be additive – it wasn’t a good use of time to brainstorm on ideas that had already been outlined.

At that point, Smith asked Jenny Paillon, HSHV’s director of operations, to share any ideas for revenues that hadn’t been discussed so far.

Paillon reviewed some additional options that had been part of her presentation to the sheriff’s work group, which included a range of suggestions for programs and ordinance changes. [.pdf of Paillon's full presentation] In addition to suggestions mentioned earlier in this report, other options for licensing include:

  • Expand the licensing program to allow HSHV and veterinarians to sell licenses, in addition to the county treasurer’s office. That way, licenses could be bought at the same place and time when animals are adopted or vaccinated.
  • Issue a free three-month license at the time of adoption to get people into the system, then follow up with that owner for regular licensing. Violations can result in a “fix-it” ticket that would cost the same as a license.
  • Use part-time temporary workers for an annual summer census campaign, which would enable violations to be identified en masse.
  • Offer graduated license fees, with significantly higher fees for unsterilized animals.
  • Sell higher-cost “vanity” licenses, with funds supporting a spay/neuter program.
  • Hold a licensing event and vaccine clinic, which can also be used to provide educational information. This approach is used in Ypsilanti Township.
  • License cats as well as dogs – there are an estimated 99,000 cats in Washtenaw County, according to the HSHV.

Paillon’s report included an estimate of potential revenue. A $12 annual license for both dogs and cats would bring in an estimated $1.122 million if there is 50% compliance. If the license is increased to $32/year, annual revenues for 50% compliance would be an estimated $2.992 million.

Wes Prater, Felicia Brabec

County commissioners Wes Prater and Felicia Brabec.

Wes Prater argued that 25 of the 28 municipalities in Washtenaw County don’t have animal control ordinances, so none of these changes would affect them. [Paillion had earlier noted that several other municipalities do have animal control ordinances – just not licensing.] Yousef Rabhi replied that the county’s licensing program applied to everyone in the county, except for the three communities with their own licensing programs. He noted that these are just ideas, and that they were taking a big-picture approach.

Prater said everyone needs to think about the citizens that these changes will be imposed on. To that, Conan Smith joked that Rabhi isn’t opposed in the Aug. 7 primary. [Prater, a Democrat like Rabhi, is also unopposed in the primary. However, because of redistricting that takes effect with the upcoming election, Prater will be in the same district as incumbent Republican Alicia Ping, and faces a difficult race in the Nov. 6 general election.]

As a practical matter, Mark Heusel of the HSHV board noted that when the county issues its RFP, they’ll need to ensure that respondents have processes in place for managing records and payments, if the county wants its animal control contractor to handle licensing.

Bergman wondered whether it was possible under state law for veterinarians to give out licenses. When Conan Smith replied that the county treasurer can delegate that duty, Prater noted that the treasurer would have to consent to this approach. [Catherine McClary is the county treasurer.] Bergman wanted a legal opinion from the county’s corporation counsel, Curtis Hedger. Heusel indicated that he had talked with Hedger about this issue, and Hedger agreed that licensing could be privatized. Nevertheless, Bergman said, she wanted Hedger’s legal opinion.

Next Steps

Toward the end of the July 25 session, the group discussed what steps need to be taken to move this project forward. Mark Heusel suggested bringing in representatives from the county prosecutor’s office and the district courts, because enforcement is a big piece of this issue.

Rob Turner mentioned that a report about the cost structure for animal control services had been given to Conan Smith, who chairs the board of commissioners, and to county administrator Verna McDaniel. That’s where the rubber hits the road regarding policy, Turner said. The two groups – the policy task force and the sheriff’s work group – need to come together and develop a recommendation based on their respective work. Turner felt that needed to occur before bringing in the prosecutor and judicial staff.

Belinda Dulin

Belinda Dulin, executive director of the Ann Arbor-based Dispute Resolution Center.

Belinda Dulin of the Dispute Resolution Center noted that the next scheduled meeting for the task force is Aug. 22. Do they need a meeting earlier than that too? The consensus was yes – it was subsequently scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 9 at 2 p.m. in the basement conference room at 200 N. Main, the county administration building in downtown Ann Arbor.

Smith noted that there are two paths. One is related to the RFP, which needs to be issued so that a contract will be in place when the current HSHV contract expires on Dec. 31. He offered to draft a list of items that he feels are essential to be included in the RFP, based on the task force discussions. He said he’d distribute that document to the group to get their feedback.

There are some controversial items that can be deferred until a later date, he said, and that don’t need to be included in the RFP. Prater suggested cats should fall into that category, and Bergman added exotic animals. Prater also felt that conducting a summer animal census was controversial, though Turner noted that it’s done in other Michigan counties.

Smith said he’d work to get a list of items that would be acceptable to most commissioners for the RFP. They could address other possible options at a later date.

Prater felt there should be some discussion of sections 14-17 in the state’s Public Act 339 of 1919 – the dog law that mandates county responsibilities. Those sections address details about how licenses are issued, the role of the county treasurer, and the role of law enforcement officers. [.pdf of Michigan's dog law] The meeting conlcuded without that topic being addressed.

Present: Barbara Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Ronnie Peterson, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Rob Turner. Also from the county administration: Verna McDaniel.

Next meeting: Thursday, Aug. 9, at 2 p.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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One Comment

  1. By Ben
    August 23, 2012 at 12:00 am | permalink

    Why are they hell bent on placing the cost of animal control on pet owners when it is the community as a whole that benefits? What is the cost of administering these licensing programs anyway? Are they really just another cost center?