County ponders getting out of shelter business

King County could turn over the animal-sheltering business to a private agency, under a proposal that county staff presented Monday to the King County Metropolitan Council.

A lost cat brought in by the man who found it waits to be checked in at the King County Animal Shelter in Kent. The animal control officer handling the intake

A lost cat brought in by the man who found it waits to be checked in at the King County Animal Shelter in Kent. The animal control officer handling the intake

King County could turn over the animal-sheltering business to a private agency, under a proposal that county staff presented Monday to the King County Metropolitan Council.

Council members Dow Constantine, Julia Patterson, Reagan Dunn and Larry Phillips said during the meeting that they favored an option for a private agency to run the shelters.

The four serve on a Council that is composed of nine members.

The options for the county to continue managing its shelters don’t appear to be many. The county could either keep operations the same – with increased funding and staffing – or reorganize the current model, with several departments taking on specific duties.

“This is not a budget decision or a policy change,” said Constantine, chairman of the Committee of the Whole that met Monday at the King County Courthouse in Seattle to hear the report on the animal-services plan. “This is a moral issue that we are responsible for the animals and we need to succeed for the animals.”

The Council took no formal action at the briefing, but asked county staff to further study what it would take to bring another organization to the table, to run the two county shelters in Kent and Bellevue.

Nobody has set a timeline for when the Council would vote on such a proposal. But it was made clear at the meeting the Council would conduct a public hearing before making any decisions.

The Council opted to look at major changes to its shelter system after a critical report by a citizens advisory committee last October called shelter conditions “deplorable.” Another report in March by consultant Nathan Winograd said that “the county has failed for more than a decade to take the necessary steps to reform the shelters.”

A county interbranch task force with members from the Executive branch, County Council, Public Health, Sheriff’s and Prosecutor’s offices spent the last five months devisimg a strategic plan and an operational master plan for animal services.

Who would do the job?

The Seattle Humane Society looms as a potential partner to provide shelter services. The Humane Society is a private, nonprofit animal-welfare group that provides adoption, veterinary and other services at a shelter in Bellevue.

“The county is in trouble because the animals are not getting what they need,” said Brenda Barnette, chief executive officer of the Seattle Humane Society, in a phone interview Monday. “We’re willing to do anything we can to help out.”

The Humane Society contracts to handle animals from the cities of Renton (which has its own animal-control officers) and Medina.

If the Council approves a proposal to partner with a private agency, it could take as long as a year before services are transferred, said Marilyn Cope, Council policy staff member, at Monday’s meeting.

Barnette said she and Humane Society board members met with County Executive Ron Sims two weeks ago to talk about a potential partnership. Barnette said she also has had unofficial meetings with individual Council members.

“When communities start looking at services, they find out privatizing does allow for more efficiency and others can do the services more economically,” Barnette said.

Executive has different idea

Sims favors more of a shared approach to sheltering animals than what the Council favors. Sims has recommended the county care for stray animals through a holding period, while a community partner would provide longer-term care and adoption services, said Jim Lopez, deputy chief of staff to Sims, at Monday’s meeting.

The executive branch plans to work with community partners to refine operations of the shelter as well as talk to cities that contract with the county about a new animal-services model.

Patterson wants switch

Patterson said she favors switching animal services to a private agency because it would cost less money than if the county remained in the animal-sheltering business.

Estimates show it would cost the county about $8.3 million per year to continue operating the shelters as the sole entity, and would require 76 employees. Having another entity operate the shelter system would cost the county about $5.7 million per year and would require only 27 employees.

Patterson also said she likes the plan to look at the 34 cities that contract with the county for animal services to pay ahigher share of the costs. That number includes Kent.

“We need to make sure our costs of providing services will not be a burden to the general fund,” Patterson said.

Pet license fees cover only 52 percent of animal-service costs. The rest comes from the county’s general fund, said Elissa Benson, co-chair of the Animal Services Task Force, at Monday’s meeting. She also said the city contracts do not cover the cost of the services provided to two-thirds of the cities.

“The revenue from (pet) licenses did not match the costs,” Benson said. “We do have a gap between the revenue source and the cost.”

If a private agency took over the shelters, the county would still provide animal-control officers, issue pet licenses, inspect and license pet shops and kennels and investigate animal cruelty.

In 2007, county animal services handled 12,364 animals, received 15,705 calls and issued 130,925 licenses.

“This is a community-wide problem,” Constantine said. “It’s going to take a community-wide approach to solve.”

A county staff report on a facilities plan for the shelters is expected to be completed within the next two weeks. The Kent shelter opened in 1975. A facilities plan will look at whether a new shelter should be built, where to build it, and a plan for financing construction.

The Council approved $965,000 in May in additional funding this year for immediate upgrades to the county animal shelters in Kent and Bellevue. That money helped fund new cat cages, new dog runs, an increase in shelter staffing, additional veterinary care, new cages for the animal control trucks and oversight of shelter operations by the King County Auditor’s Office.

Despite those changes, Kim Sgro, co-founder of King County Animal Care and Control (KCACC) Exposed, said at a protest rally against the shelters Monday outside of Seattle City Hall, that poor management remains a problem with the shelters. The group favors a private agency taking over the shelters.

“They do not have an adequate adoption program or foster care and they are not able to keep disease out,” Srgo said. “The system can’t be fixed. The shelters need to go to those who can get the job done.”

Wendy Keller, who took over as interim manager of the shelters in July, said in a phone interview Tuesday that conditions have greatly improved over the last few months. Keller disagreed with critics who claim conditions remain poor at the facility.

“They should not discredit an agency doing one heck of a job with too big of a population,” said Keller, who added that adoption and foster care numbers have increased and diseases are controlled.

Keller said she expects some type of partnership between the county and a private agency to eventually evolve. She also said funds are needed for a new facility.

King County provides animal-control and shelter services to unincorporated areas and 34 cities within the county. The city of Seattle has its own animal control officers and operates an animal shelter.

To view the interbranch task force report on animal services, go to www.kingcounty.gov/council.


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