Miami-Dade delays vote on animal welfare funding

Declaring that they wanted to give everyone concerned about Miami-Dade’s pet overpopulation problem a voice on how the county should use tax money to reduce the killing of unwanted cats and dogs at its shelter, the County Commission on Tuesday decided to postpone for two weeks a final vote on the Animal Services Department’s “strategic plan’’ to reduce the death rate.

The action shocked more than a dozen activists with the Pets Trust, a grassroots coalition that worked to place a nonbinding question on last November’s ballot asking residents to tax themselves for services that will help the county reach the “no-kill’’ goal it set last year.

Swathed in red, paw- print bandannas and cradling the Pets Trust “spokesdog’’ — a brown mutt named Pepe Sal — they stormed out of the commission chambers, some in tears, when the panel put the brakes on the Animal Services Department’s Report of Recommendations for Attaining a No-Kill Shelter.

That report, written by Animal Services Director Alex Muñoz, included ideas from the Pets’ Trust Action Plan, the ASPCA, No Kill Nation, existing ASD procedures and other sources. (The Miami Herald incorrectly reported in Tuesday’s edition that the commission was to vote on the Pets’ Trust Action Plan.)

“Five hundred thousand people vote and this is what they do to us?’’ asked Trust co-founder Michael Rosenberg, referring to the number of voters who said they would support a property tax that would be dedicated animal welfare. Some 65 percent voted in support of the non-binding referendum question Nov. 6.

The question asked whether the county could increase property taxes at the rate of $10 per $100,000 of value to improve animal welfare, amounting to some $20 million annually, with the average property owner paying $20.

Commissioner José “Pepe” Diaz, who with Commission Sally A. Heyman championed the measure — hence the “spokesdog’s’’ name — said they’d been getting calls from interested parties, including rescue groups and veterinarians, who took issue with specifics in the report and wanted changes.

“This is about the people’s money,’’ said Diaz. “It’s a tax to save animals...It’s important to take everyone’s opinion.’’

He said the full commission would vote at its next meeting on Muñoz’s 40-page report, which suggests ways to recruit more volunteers and foster homes, increase the number of sterilizations done at the shelter, establish the trap/neuter/release model for reducing feral cat colonies, buy more mobile clinics, set up off-site adoption centers, run education programs and provide sterilization surgery vouchers for private veterinarians.

In the meantime, commissioners will take comments when the Public Safety and Animal Services Committee, which District 4’s Heyman chairs, meets June 12.

Among the supporting documents with the report: a letter to commissioners from ASPCA Shelter Outreach Services Director Dr. Tami McReynolds, citing that the 2013 save rate for dogs is nearly 80 percent, and for cats 60 percent, both historic levels. “No Kill” is defined as 90 percent.

Most years, at least 35,000 unwanted cats and dogs enter the shelter, most of them feral cats.

Rosenberg said his anger stemmed from the last-minute nature of the commission’s decision to delay, after his group met individually with each commissioner and came away feeling as if the vote would go through.

However, he said, the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association, which opposes a Pets’ Trust-generated idea to establish high-volume sterilization clinics, hired a lobbyist — former commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla — to counter the group’s message.

Leaders from the veterinary association never met with Pets’ Trust officials, despite repeated email invitations, Rosenberg said.

Private vets usually charge several hundred dollars for sterilization, which the high-volume clinics — set up to do nothing but sterilizations — would do for a fraction of the cost.

While veterinarians may fear business would be taken away from them, Rosenberg counters the clinics would only offer the one service and would steer customers to neighborhood vets for annual care.

He added that the neighborhood vets are not equipped to do 1,500 surgeries a week.

But if the vets helped out by contributing low-cost sterilization services, “and commit for at least five years at a price that is extremely fair to the public, it would be great.’’

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