March 25, 2009 in City

Stray dogs and cats could roam Spokane streets

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane police could double as dog catchers under a scenario being contemplated by at least some city leaders.

In the aftermath of the voters’ rejection earlier this month of a tax that would have paid for an animal shelter, officials say they might have to abandon all but the legally required minimum levels of animal control services in Spokane.

That could mean stray dogs and cats would be allowed to run loose unless deemed dangerous.

“All the other animal complaints would be unanswered,” said City Councilman Bob Apple, who suggested that police be charged with animal control if another solution isn’t found.

Apple also suggests that if scaled-back operations become necessary, the city should end pet licensing.

Officials at local shelters say scaling back operations to only what’s required by law is a terrible option.

“This isn’t Curlew, Wash.,” said Gail Mackie, director of SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. “It would just be a nightmare.”

Nancy Hill, director of the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service, said a bare-bone animal control service could mean the city wouldn’t send help if a pet is injured at the side of the road or if a neighbor’s dog won’t shut up.

“That would be chaos,” Hill said. “Someone’s phone would be ringing. I don’t think the public would be very happy with that.”

Spokane City Council President Joe Shogan said “he welcomes creative ideas” to solve the dilemma. He added that if others want to put a new measure on the ballot, he’s open to it, but “I’m not going to work on it.”

“The city should do what it’s obligated to do and no more,” said Shogan, who worked on the campaign in support of the tax that failed. “You can’t live beyond your means.”

Mayor Mary Verner said the city has three options: Go back to the voters, borrow the money and pay it back with existing revenue or “downsize the expectations of the service level to the community.”

“Clearly, we cannot afford to provide full-scale animal control like we would have if we had been able to proceed with our plan to go with SCRAPS,” Verner said. “We’re still discussing with the council our options at this point.”

The city has significant reserve funds, but officials say they want to keep those intact for emergencies and to help maintain the city’s bond rating.

“We just don’t have the money,” Verner said.

The city’s previous back-up plan – borrowing the money and paying it back with existing taxes – has become increasingly problematic given the worsening budget picture. The city faces a $5.5 million budget deficit next year.

After years of debate, the Spokane City Council last year voted to merge its animal control operations with SCRAPS. The city has been contracting with SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. But the nonprofit organization has said it wants out of the animal control business to focus on pet rescue.

To join SCRAPS, the city agreed to pay to expand the county’s shelter and other start-up costs. That price is estimated at $4.2 million.

Earlier this month, just 51 percent of city voters agreed to a tax that would have paid $4.2 million for the shelter and start-up costs plus an additional $14.3 million to build a new police evidence building and other items. A supermajority of 60 percent was required to pass.

Apple said giving animal control duties to police is undesirable but realistic given the lack of money to pay for a new shelter. If the city takes that path, SpokAnimal could change its mind to continue handling animal control, at least until the economy improves enough to move ahead with the county partnership, Apple said.

Mackie said pursuing animal control again would be up to SpokAnimal’s board, but “we’ve been pretty firm on what we’re doing.”

SCRAPS is scheduled to take over the city’s animal control service early next year. Hill said no one from the city has informed her that Spokane is considering backing out of the new partnership.

“I was told initially that if the bond wouldn’t pass, they would find the funding elsewhere,” Hill said. “I haven’t heard anything different from that.”

City Councilman Mike Allen said he supports asking voters a second time for the shelter money.

“We should strive to do more than the minimum required,” Allen said. “My take on it is we have a responsibility to our citizens to provide animal control.”

Dave Richardson, executive director of the Spokane Humane Society, said city leaders should put the request on the ballot again. He added that animal welfare advocates should join together to advocate the partnership with SCRAPS and the tax.

“We have to get behind this,” Richardson said. “Losing animal control would be devastating to our animals and our community.”

Apple questioned the likelihood of the public approving a new tax given the worsening economy.

Despite the recession, however, the city’s tax plan was the only one of a dozen other tax measures on Spokane County’s March ballot that failed.

Mackie, Hill and Richardson suggested that a new shelter tax not be tied to other city needs like an evidence room.

“The problem with the last bond issue was there was just too much put together,” Mackie said. “I would love to see them divide these things out.”

But Shogan said that in separating projects, the proposal also could lose support. He noted that the tax that failed would have cost the owner of a property valued at $200,000 less than $20 a year.

“We’re a democracy, and people vote and they make decisions,” Shogan said. “But there are consequences.”

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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