Washtenaw County board of commissioners – animal control policy task force meeting (Sept. 13, 2012): With five of 11 county commissioners present, a task force for developing policies on the county’s animal control services thrashed through a list of recommendations to make to the full board, possibly at its Sept. 19 meeting.
But at the end of the two-hour task force session, commissioners also opened the door to start direct negotiations with the Humane Society of Huron Valley, rather than pursuing a request for proposals (RFP) from other vendors. For many years HSHV has held the contract to provide services to the county, including those that are state-mandated. Its current contract expires on Dec. 31, 2012. Key points of contention have been the amount that the county is willing to pay for animal control services, both mandated and non-mandated, and how much those services actually cost.
In advocating for negotiations with HSHV, Rolland Sizemore Jr. expressed concern that if the board pursues the RFP process, a service provider won’t be lined up by the end of this year. Then the county will be in the same position it was in the beginning of 2012 – scrambling to get a new contract. He also pointed out that if the county issues an RFP and no other organizations respond, then the HSHV will have more leverage over the county “because they’ll know we’re screwed.”
Tanya Hilgendorf, HSHV’s executive director, supported starting contract negotiations. She attended the Sept. 13 meeting and praised the work of the task force as well as a separate group led by sheriff Jerry Clayton, which has been analyzing costs for animal control services. People are more informed than they were when this process began in May, she said, adding that there was more trust between the county and HSHV, too.
At least one commissioner, Barbara Bergman, had explicitly stated earlier in the meeting that she didn’t trust HSHV yet. She said the last time that the county had trusted HSHV, commissioners didn’t get good data about the services that were being provided, and the cost of those services. Bergman – who had left the meeting by the time a suspension of the RFP process was discussed – has been a strong advocate for curbing costs related to animal control, in favor of funding programs for human services.
The task force reached consensus on eight recommendations for animal control services to include in an RFP, or for a contract with HSHV. Those include licensing all dogs at the point of adoption or recovery, holding all stray animals for the minimum number of days required by law, and providing animal cruelty investigations.
The group also reached agreement on broader policy recommendations, including several longer-term goals: creating a civil infractions ordinance and fee structure for unlicensed dogs, and working with local units of government to create a unified, countywide dog licensing program. Currently three other jurisdictions – Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – have their own dog licensing programs, with varying fee levels.
Several other changes might be proposed in the future. Hilgendorf offered to draft language for an ordinance prohibiting ownership of certain types of exotic animals. She also hoped that commissioners eventually would consider an anti-chaining ordinance and spay/neuter ordinance – “even if it’s just for pit bulls,” which has worked well in Ypsilanti Township, she said. [The township has an ordinance requiring that pit bulls must be spayed or neutered.] Hilgendorf also suggested addressing the issue of feral cats, which are a problem in some parts of the county. HSHV already operates a “trap, neuter, return” program aimed at curbing the feral cat population.
When the task force was formed earlier this year, it were given a deadline of Oct. 15 to bring recommendations to the full board. It’s likely that will happen sooner, possibly at the board’s Sept. 19 meeting. As of Sept. 16, however, there was no agenda item for these recommendations on the board’s ways & means committee agenda or the regular board agenda.
The relationship between HSHV and the county has a long, complex history. For additional background, see ”Next Steps on Animal Control Policy,” “Work Continues on Animal Control Policy,” and ”Revenue Options Eyed for Animal Control.” More information related to this process is also posted on the county’s website.
Contract Service Levels: Recommendations
A draft set of recommendations had been developed by board chair Conan Smith, based on discussions at previous task force meetings as well as feedback from commissioners at their Sept. 6 working session. [.pdf of slides from Smith's working session presentation]
Smith was one of five commissioners who attended the Sept. 13 meeting. Others included Barbara Bergman, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., and Rob Turner. Of those, Bergman, Rabhi and Smith represent three of the four districts in Ann Arbor. Turner’s district covers portions of the west and northwest part of the county, while Sizemore represents a district covering most of Ypsilanti Township, on the county’s east side.
During 90 minutes of discussion, the draft recommendations were modified in several ways. Two recommendations – related to monthly reporting requirements, and holding animals for bite quarantines or court mandates – were added during the meeting. A recommendation for marketing adoption services was eliminated.
Here’s the list of recommendations that is expected to be brought to the full board of commissioners, possibly on Sept. 19. The idea is that these services would form the basis for a request for proposals (RFP) to be issued by the county:
- License all dogs at point of adoption or recovery.
- Hold all stray animals for the minimum number of days required by law.
- Provide animal cruelty investigations.
- Post information on website about animals being held by the county to facilitate adoption or recovery.
- Provide medical attention and basic humane care – to be specified in a contract with the County – during the holding period.
- Support county policies for registration and licensing of animals.
- Make a monthly report to county board on operating metrics.
- Hold animals for bite quarantines and court-mandated holds for the minimum required by law.
Before reaching consensus on this list of recommendations, commissioners had a wide-ranging discussion on each item, and brought additional issues to the table. This report summarizes some of the highlights of those discussions.
Contract Service Levels: Recommendations – Duration of Holding Strays
The original draft recommendation stated: “Hold all stray animals to a maximum of 10 business days or as otherwise required by law.” There was considerable discussion about this item, because there are several different scenarios under which an animal might be held, and different durations that are required by law for holding an animal. Some of these issues are in dispute regarding what the county mandate entails.
The state mandates that the county has a duty to hold: (1) unlicensed stray dogs for four business days; (2) licensed stray dogs for seven business days; and (3) dogs, cats, or ferrets for 10 business days if suspected of rabies. Weekends and state holidays can’t be counted in calculating these mandated hold periods, nor can the first 24 hours be counted.
The average number of holding days is about 10 days, according to HSHV. That average factors in the much longer holding periods that are court-mandated in animal cruelty cases.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. wanted to know what happens after the holding period ends? Tanya Hilgendorf, HSHV’s executive director, explained that if a stray animal is not returned to its owner or adopted by then, the county is no longer obligated to pay for holding that animal. The costs then are incurred by HSHV.
Conan Smith advocated for keeping the maximum hold of 10 business days to make it easier for residents – people shouldn’t have to worry about figuring out how long their animal might be held, he said. Barbara Bergman said that’s not the county’s problem. She suggested that the requirement be for the minimum amount of time required by law.
Hilgendorf supported Bergman’s suggestion. Making it a requirement to hold an animal for longer than the minimum time required is actually a detriment, she said. The goal is to adopt out an animal as soon as possible – that’s best for the animal, and saves expenses too. The key to a good save rate is fast flow-through, she explained.
Commissioners consented to changing the recommendation for holding stray animals to a minimum time required by law.
Contract Service Levels: Recommendations – Marketing of Adoption
One item in the original draft recommendations for contract services was eliminated, related to marketing of adoption services.
Conan Smith had originally proposed this item: “Market adoption services throughout the county.” When Yousef Rabhi asked what those services would entail, Smith replied that it wasn’t their job to articulate how an organization might respond to the request for proposals. The goal is to develop items to include in the RFP, he said.
Barbara Bergman wanted to remove it. Rolland Sizemore Jr. said it’s HSHV’s business to promote adoption services, and the county shouldn’t tread on that. Rob Turner added that the county could certainly provide a link from its website to the HSHV adoption site. He liked the service, but agreed that it was beyond what the county should be doing.
HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf suggested that perhaps the intent was to identify an organization’s capacity to do this work, which affects the “save rate” of animals – the percentage of animals that are not euthanized. So she wondered how the county could communicate to potential vendors that adopting out is important.
It’s not important, Bergman replied – at least, not in her role as a county commissioner, she added. Turner stated that adopting out animals is important to him, but he wasn’t sure it needed to be among the services that the county contracts for.
Smith said he hoped to contract with HSHV. But his concern is that if the county’s RFP doesn’t include this item for marketing, then respondents won’t necessarily do it. Smith said if the county board is willing to forego the RFP process and negotiate directly with HSHV for a new contract, then he’d be willing to eliminate the marketing item.
Hilgendorf noted that outside of her role at HSHV, she has done assessments of other animal shelters. Some of them are “houses of horror,” she said, because the values that Smith is trying to communicate aren’t absorbed. Hilgendorf said she loved the idea of negotiating with the county – there’s more trust between the county and HSHV now, she said, and more people in government who understand animal control issues. But if the board doesn’t go that way, she’d advocate to include some kind of statement in a contract with any vendor that reflects the values that the community wants. She said that would go a long way in responding to the community that’s been watching this process unfold.
Bergman objected, saying that such a statement was too open to interpretation. The item for marketing adoption services was eliminated.
Contract Service Levels: Recommendations – Educational Services
There was also debate about the item related to animal cruelty investigations. The original item stated this service would: “Provide animal cruelty investigations and educational services.” However, Bergman objected to the county paying for educational services. ”We should not be in that business,” she said. “It’s way beyond our mandate, and there are hungry children.” She resented the implication that some supporters of HSHV had made regarding the importance of empathy to animals in a child’s development. It felt like extortion, she said, adding that you can’t expect children to grow up with empathy if they also don’t have adequate food, shelter and clothing.
Conan Smith argued that providing education can be cost effective. Only 5% of animal cruelty calls end up being prosecuted, he said. The majority of calls don’t rise to the level of going to court, which is expensive. Educating people about their bad behavior regarding animals is a preemptive measure, he said.
Bergman wanted to know who is measuring that cost effectiveness. Smith replied that HSHV had provided a breakdown of expenses related to animal cruelty calls, including expenses related to calls that don’t become cases. [.pdf of HSHV cost analysis, including animal cruelty] It’s possible to make assumptions based on that data, he said. Bergman replied that she had trouble making decisions based on assumptions, and wanted a cost/benefit analysis instead. If such an analysis can’t be provided, she was against paying for educational costs.
Rob Turner noted that there are different types of animal cruelty calls, ranging from inadequate food and shelter to far more serious physical abuse. For many situations, a little bit of education can reduce recidivism, he said. Otherwise, you have to keep returning to the same place over and over, responding to the same issues. The suggestion is not to provide general education about animal cruelty prevention, he added. It’s simply to provide education as part of responding to animal cruelty calls. Education goes a long way towards preventing one call from becoming three or more.
Bergman contended that if there aren’t any metrics to measure the cost effectiveness of educational services, then the county was just being an irresponsible spendthrift. Smith joked that it wouldn’t be the first time someone had called him that.
Hilgendorf said HSHV employs a teacher who runs the organization’s educational program, which includes a variety of outreach efforts. The county shouldn’t pay for that, she said. Rather, this recommendation referred specifically to educational services connected to animal cruelty calls. It’s simply a matter of talking with pet owners as part of the call response, telling them things like why they need to take their pet to the vet, for example. It’s just part of the process, and doesn’t incur an additional cost.
Commissioners later reached consensus to eliminate the recommendations for educational services as related to animal cruelty investigations.
Contract Service Levels: Recommendations – Block Grant vs. Fee-for-Service
Rolland Sizemore Jr. expressed frustration at allocating line-by-line expenses in a contract. He proposed giving HSHV a certain amount of money and letting their staff allocate it as necessary. ”Like when my wife gives me an allowance,” he joked. “I can go to McDonald’s or Burger King.”
Barbara Bergman told him that “the days of block grants are over.” She supported paying for specific services. The county no longer provides block grant for other services, like mental health programs. She didn’t think they should give block grants for any reason.
Conan Smith described himself as “pro-block grant.” He noted that the board hadn’t raised this issue previously, but it’s a good question to discuss.
Bergman observed that in recent years, the county has paid HSHV $500,000 annually without getting detailed data about the services that were being provided. The data was terrible, she said, and going back to that approach would be frivolous.
Smith countered that a block grant allows services to be leveraged in a cost effective way. He said he believes that the county needs to be data-driven, and they’ve worked for months with HSHV to get that data. At this point, he wants to trust the professionals.
Bergman replied that she doesn’t yet trust the HSHV. The last time the county trusted that organization, she said, they didn’t get good data. Bergman then reported that her grandson Jonah had been the one to make HSHV’s 2,000th adoption this summer. Her son had chosen not to reveal their relationship with her, she said, because of accusations that people have made against her that she “doesn’t give a damn about animals.” Despite what people say, Bergman added, in fact she does care about dogs – but she also cares about providing support for children.
Contract Service Levels: Recommendations – Oversight
At a couple of points during the meeting, Rolland Sizemore Jr. raised the issue of oversight, and suggested that the county board should have a dedicated seat on the HSHV board of directors. Yousef Rabhi agreed that the recommendations should address the issue of oversight. He noted that contracts with HSHV state that the organization must make regular reports to the county about its activities. [.pdf of current HSHV contract] It’s worth putting in specific language about what kind of information the county board wants, and how often those reports should be made, he said.
Greg Dill, the county’s infrastructure management director who was representing the county administration at the task force meeting, suggested keeping the recommendation fairly broad. That way, the board can later tailor its requests in the contract as it sees fit, he said.
Rabhi proposed the following recommendation: “Make a monthly report to County board on operating metrics.” His recommendation was added to the list. However, no recommendation was added to request that a county commissioner serve on the HSHV board.
Animal Control Policies, Practices
The final 30 minutes of the Sept. 13 meeting focused on refining a draft of proposed county policies and practices for animal control. At this point, only four commissioners were still present: Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith and Rob Turner.
The group reached consensus on these recommendations:
- Adopt a civil infractions ordinance and fee structure for unlicensed dogs.
- Adopt a voluntary pet registration program that is cost neutral and does not expand the county’s mandate.
- Develop an ordinance prohibiting ownership of certain types of exotic animals.
- Design and implement a veterinary partners program to support licensing.
- Work with the county prosecutor and courts to promote forfeiture in animal cruelty cases.
- Work with the courts to implement a collections-compliance program for infraction violations and cruelty cases.
- Work with local units of government to create a unified dog licensing program across that county and a common ordinance standard.
- Develop cost-sharing with local governments to offset increases driven by local ordinance requirements.
Animal Control Policies & Practices: Unified Licensing
Several of the items relate to generating revenues, and questions about who will pay for animal control services. One of those recommendations was for a unified countywide dog licensing program. The state mandates that the county is responsible for dog licensing, unless that task is picked up by another local jurisdiction. In Washtenaw County, five communities have animal control ordinances: the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the townships of Pittsfield, Superior and Ypsilanti. However, only three of those – Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – also have licensing programs, which generate revenues for animal control. The licensing fees vary, depending on where you live.
Creating a unified system is something that Yousef Rabhi sees as a long-term vision. But in the short-term, the county needs to immediately work with other communities and “get money in the form of a check,” he said.
Rob Turner agreed. He noted that Ypsilanti Township has a very aggressive ordinance to combat dog fighting, but the county ends up picking up some of the costs for that. The township just needs to pay for some of the costs that the county incurs, he said.
Rabhi added that for the county’s next budget cycle, he felt that there needs to be a specific financial commitment from communities with animal control ordinances.
Greg Dill reported that earlier in the afternoon, he had met with sheriff Jerry Clayton and county administrator Verna McDaniel to discuss this issue of cost-sharing with other communities. He said they’ve come up with a formula that will significantly reduce the amount that the county currently pays for animal control services, and that there will be meetings in the coming weeks with the leaders of other communities to talk about a new approach. He did not give additional details about the proposed cost-sharing formula.
Conan Smith felt it would be much more lucrative and efficient to have a unified licensing program countywide. Turner and Rabhi agreed, but again emphasized that this should be a longer-term goal.
The discussion prompted Smith to propose the final policy recommendation that was added to the list: Develop cost-sharing with local governments to offset increases driven by local ordinance requirements.
Animal Control Policies & Practices: Animal Census
Another item that had been originally included in the draft recommendations was deleted: Work with the county treasurer to design and implement an annual pet census.
Rob Turner noted that a census would cost money, but it might be possible to hire student interns to do the work in the summer. It’s also likely that a census would generate more revenue than it would cost, as owners of unlicensed pets would end up paying for licenses.
Rolland Sizemore Jr. mentioned a point that Wes Prater had raised during the board’s Sept. 6 working session. Prater indicated that the state dog law of 1919 mandates each community to take a dog census, and that the responsibility for doing the census falls to the assessors in each jurisdiction. If that’s what the dog law states, Sizemore said, then that’s how a census should be handled.
Here’s the section of the dog law that Prater had pointed out – the “board of supervisors” mentioned in this law is the historical precursor to the current county board of commissioners:
Sec. 16. The supervisor of each township and the assessor of every city, annually, on taking his assessment of property as required by law, may make diligent inquiry as to the number of dogs owned, harbored or kept by all persons in his assessing district; and on or before June 1, make a complete report to the county treasurer, for his county, on a blank form furnished by the director of agriculture, setting forth the name of every owner, or keeper, of any dog, subject to license under this act, how many of each sex are owned by him, and if a kennel license is maintained such fact shall be also stated. Every supervisor or assessor shall receive for his services in listing such dogs at a rate determined by the board of supervisors for each dog so listed, which sums shall be paid out of the general fund of the county. [.pdf of Michigan's dog law]
Yousef Rabhi felt that a census should be a longer-term project. He first wanted to increase licensing compliance through other approaches. A census might be putting too much on their plate, he said.
Conan Smith recalled that county treasurer Catherine McClary had identified a three-step process to increase dog-licensing compliance: (1) adding the option of a three-year license, so that owners could renew licenses on the same cycle as the dogs’ rabies shots – and the county board approved that change in September 2010; (2) making the lack of a dog license a civil infraction, rather than a misdemeanor; and (3) doing an annual pet census.
Catherine Jones, a business analyst with the county who’s been working on the financial aspect of animal control issues, noted that McClary believes it’s not useful to do a census until a civil infractions ordinance is in place. Otherwise, there would be no feasible tool to force compliance.
Rabhi suggested removing the recommendation for the proposed policy list, and other commissioners agreed.
Animal Control Policies & Practices: Voluntary Pet Registration
There was a fair amount of discussion about the policy item related to pet registration. The original draft proposed by Conan Smith stated: “Adopt a voluntary pet registration program for cats and exotics.”
Yousef Rabhi and Rolland Sizemore Jr. both wondered why anyone would voluntarily want to register their cat or exotic animal. HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf said this type of registry isn’t done here, but it’s common in other areas. Catherine Jones, a business analyst for Washtenaw County, pointed out that if an animal is registered and later becomes lost, it would be easier to identify if someone finds it and brings it to the Humane Society.
In Washtenaw County, there’s a low return rate for cats, Hilgendorf said. But if cats are registered and can be returned to their owners quickly, that’s less cost for holding the strays at HSHV. A registry could also be seen as a possible way to raise revenues, she added.
Jenny Paillon, HSHV’s director of operations, thought this item might have morphed from an HSHV suggestion that the county create an ordinance to prohibit ownership of certain exotic animals. Right now it’s a gray area, she said. It’s legal to own certain exotics, so when they are brought to HSHV as strays, they must be handled like other stray animals.
Rob Turner proposed adding that as another recommendation: Develop an ordinance prohibiting ownership of certain types of exotic animals. The details about which exotics to include could be worked out later, he said. Hilgendorf offered to draft ordinance language for the board to consider.
Greg Dill, the county’s infrastructure management director who was representing the county administration at the task force meeting, suggested eliminating reference to specific types of animals and simply call for a voluntary pet registration program, period.
Yousef Rabhi objected to a registration program – even a voluntary one. It would still become a county responsibility, he said, and he was reluctant to expand the county’s scope of services in this way.
Smith replied that there was a clear distinction between voluntary registration and licensing, which is mandatory. He said he had talked about the issue with Curtis Hedger, the county’s corporation counsel.
In that case, Rabhi said, he would support having a voluntary registration program, but wanted to state explicitly that the program should be cost neutral and not expand the county’s mandate. Other commissioners agreed with that revision.
Eliminating the RFP Process?
Toward the end of the task force meeting, Rolland Sizemore Jr. stated that he was getting tired of this process. Why not propose that the county will pay the Humane Society of Huron Valley $325,000 per year, then ask HSHV to negotiate with other communities that have animal control ordinances for the remaining amount? Whatever amount HSHV can get from these other communities, HSHV can keep, he suggested.
Sizemore was concerned that if the board pursues the RFP process, a service provider won’t be lined up by the end of the year, and they’ll be in the same position they were at the beginning of 2012 – scrambling to get a new contract. He also pointed out that if the county issues an RFP and no other organizations respond, then the HSHV will have more leverage over the county “because they’ll know we’re screwed.”
He also said he wanted HSHV to know that while he preferred working with them, if it comes down to funding programs for kids or for animals, “I’ll go with kids.”
Related to the issue of possibly suspending the RFP, earlier in the meeting paper copies of an email sent from county administrator Verna McDaniel to commissioner Barbara Bergman – and cc’d to the full board – had been passed out. The email was responding to a query from Bergman about the RFP process, and addressed the issue of canceling the RFP. In relevant part, McDaniel’s email stated:
I wanted to provide some information on the process for Requests for Proposals. As with any RFP that the County submits, we reserve the right to cancel the request at any time during and after we have received proposals. I have verified this with Purchasing and Corp Counsel as we have a clause in our boilerplate stating our right to cancel at any time. As such, this will apply to the Animal Control Services RFP. After the bid opening, bids are subject to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act].
Responding to Sizemore, Conan Smith said he hadn’t written down a specific recommendation about it, but one way to handle the situation is to decide not to issue an RFP and start negotiations with HSHV now.
Rob Turner expressed support, but felt the county should commit to covering the cost of existing services with HSHV. The board should then direct county administrator Verna McDaniel to work with other communities that have animal control ordinances, and “get those local areas to chip in,” he said.
Turner also pointed out that sheriff Jerry Clayton had expressed caution about using another vendor, noting that transportation costs could increase depending on where an animal shelter is located.
Smith said he heard three of the four commissioners in the room leaning toward negotiations with HSHV. Yousef Rabhi said he was neutral, and felt that they should comply with the board’s resolution, which had called for an RFP. Sizemore observed that the board could simply change that at its Sept. 19 meeting by passing another resolution that called for negotiations instead of an RFP.
There was no formal vote taken on this suggestion, but the consensus appeared to be that the recommendation to suspend the RFP process might be brought to the board at its Sept. 19 meeting.
As the task force meeting concluded, HSHV executive director Tanya Hilgendorf thanked everyone for their hard work, creativity and dedication. She said that despite what Barbara Bergman might think, Hilgendorf knew that Bergman had a huge heart and is very compassionate. [Bergman had left the meeting by this point.]
Hilgendorf said she understood that it’s a balancing act when it comes to available money for these services. She felt like a lot of people had dug through data in this process, and that there were now more experts at the government level on these issues. ”To me, it’s only going to get better from here,” she said.
In the future, she hoped that they could address some other issues as well, including an anti-chaining ordinance and spay/neuter ordinance – “even if it’s just for pit bulls,” which has worked well in Ypsilanti Township, she said. [The township has an ordinance requiring that pit bulls must be spayed or neutered.] Hilgendorf also suggested addressing the issue of feral cats, which are a problem in some parts of the county. HSHV already operates a “trap, neuter, return” program aimed at curbing the feral cat population.
All of these efforts would be preventative and save money down the line, she said, as well as creating a safer community for people as well as animals.
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