City considers new course with animal services
Nancy Hill sat in the back row of City Council chambers last week, an interested observer tuned into a conversation she's heard before.
The longtime director of Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service (SCRAPS) attended the Nov. 13 budget hearing for the latest update on Liberty Lake's chances of renewing a contract with the agency she oversees. By the time the meeting was over, Hill had given an impromptu pitch on the benefits of SCRAPS while the governing board was left contemplating a list of scenarios that could change the complexion of animal protection in the county's easternmost city.
As with most municipal topics, the conversation revolved around money.
"The last six months we've been talking to providers, looking into what the costs would be," said Police Chief Brian Asmus, who provided a context for the discussion with a brief PowerPoint presentation on animal control.
The city has received an estimate of $11,618 from SCRAPS for 2013, down from this year's charge of $12,115. Going back to 2008 - the year Liberty Lake reunited with SCRAPS after an in-house approach from 2004 to 2007 - the county's rate has decreased. The fee peaked at $14,512 in 2009.
The city could still do better from a cost standpoint, according to Mayor Steve Peterson.
"SCRAPS has been negotiating with Spokane Valley, but the other three cities, Millwood, Cheney and Liberty Lake, have just received a bill for services," Peterson said. "There were no benchmarks associated with reducing cost, no reaching out as to what the cities wanted from SCRAPS."
The city did attempt to bring up alternatives at a meeting of the county commissioners on Oct. 23, but to no avail. One of the proposal s - which would have consisted of the city paying for support from SCRAPS on a case-by-case basis instead of the traditional means of calculating a percentage of overall service - was criticized by Hill as "trying to change the way we do business."
From July 2011 to June 2012, Liberty Lake's portion represented only 1.81 percent of SCRAPS' combined workload. In contrast, the city of Spokane Valley accounted for 47.43 percent. The figure is based on a variety of activities, including impounds, investigations, emergency calls and other services.
Looking ahead to 2013, SCRAPS has estimated that animal license fees in the city of Liberty Lake would ring in at $17,060. That number is subtracted from the agency's estimated costs of $28,678 to emerge with the city's rate of $11,618 to be extracted from the general fund.
Asmus emphasized that the city could generate as much as $20,000 in licensing income "by taking a proactive approach." One option being offered by the city would have the police department coordinate animal control at a cost of $28,940. The scenario could include a seasonal employee assigned to promote pet licensing. Taking into account the increase in licensing revenue, the overall impact on the general fund would be $8,940. The city has also discussed the option of a municipal model with no staff time. Assuming the same $20,000 in licensing proceeds, the budget would reflect a surplus of $3,000.
Hill, who is a resident of Liberty Lake, said the city needs to consider the overall value it receives from the county contract.
"With us, people know where to go and who to call," she said. "For one thing, we're close to Liberty Lake. Before, residents had to go to City Hall, and it was confusing. We're a one-stop shop. We have the shelter, free dog-training classes, the SCRAPS Hope Foundation and more. I appreciate everyone looking at costs, but animal protection services are often unappreciated until you need them."
Responding to criticism last week from a pair of Council representatives, Shane Brickner and Josh Beckett, regarding the agency's slow response to a feral cat case in city limits, Hill said SCRAPS was aware of the issue and addresses such concerns with a priority "on lives being saved."
"A large colony like that takes time," Hill said.
Beckett countered, saying if the city is paying SCRAPS to be its provider, "we expect a better response."
Spokanimal, SCRAPS' counterpart in the city of Spokane, currently contracts with cities like Medical Lake, Tekoa and Rockford. Asmus outlined a potential collaboration with Spokanimal that would consist of a $17,000 fee completely offset by the same amount in licensing revenue.
"Some facts that are determining our decision are cost," Peterson said. "SCRAPS is not a total provider for all of the cities in Spokane County. Most cities are covered by Spokanimal, and a couple do their own animal control. Liberty Lake, Cheney and Airway Heights police departments routinely handle the initial calls for service. Chief Asmus has had extensive discussions trying to help SCRAPS understand our issues in this regard."
Hill has defended her agency's approach to licensing, saying that "we have a lot of good programs to promote this." The effort includes press releases, a regular insert in property tax statements and reminders on the SCRAPS website. Under Hill's tenure, the agency worked with district court judges to increase the fine for unlicensed dogs and cats to $200.
"It would be great to have a full-service shelter paid for entirely through licensing, but this doesn't exist anywhere in the nation," Hill said.
Hill and Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke continue to champion a regionalized rendition of animal protection, a topic that came up at City Hall last week. Hill told Council members that the model would feature "an economy of scale" and likely begin with a foundation that includes the jurisdictions of Spokane and Spokane Valley. Spokane's contract with Spokanimal runs out at the end of 2013.
"A regionalized approach would require a very specific facility and staff," Hill said.
Voters rejected a tax increase last November that would have paid for renovation of a space to house the new regional agency. The measure was defeated with 56-percent voting against it.
"Frankly, if SCRAPS truly wants to be regional, it must be in more than name only," Peterson said.
After Hill responded to a series of questions from Peterson and the Council on Nov. 13, Council Member Cris Kaminskas reminded attendees that the meeting was intended to be a budget hearing, not a roundtable discussion. Based on Kamiskas' recommendation, a workshop discussion on animal control was added to the Dec. 4 City Council agenda. The city must have its 2013 budget approved no later than Dec. 31.
As the conversation over the future of animal protection continues, Peterson referenced Liberty Lake's most recognized canine - "first dog" Pecos Peterson, a well-mannered Chihuahua in attendance at most City Council meetings - in summing up the city's approach to an increasingly complex debate.
"I know that as mayor, I will provide the city with the best animal control with established benchmarks of service and care for our furry friends," Peterson said. "Just ask Pecos!"