Miami-Dade

Pets’ Trust hires big name lobbyist to bite back at Miami-Dade mayor

 
 
Grace Davin, back, a vet tech, at Miami-Dade Animal Services, looks after the half-dozen, pups surrendered and found, in only a few hours, Friday morning, September 7, 2012.
Grace Davin, back, a vet tech, at Miami-Dade Animal Services, looks after the half-dozen, pups surrendered and found, in only a few hours, Friday morning, September 7, 2012.
MARICE COHN BAND / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

The animal lovers aren’t giving up.

After Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Wednesday nixed the same taxpayer-supported plan to stop killing unwanted animals at the county shelter that he’d supported on Tuesday, Pets’ Trust Miami had hired Ron Book, the Rin Tin Tin of South Florida lobbyists.

He plans to address the County Commission at a budget meeting Tuesday, as Pets’ Trust advocates rally outside Government Center.

Pets’ Trust co-founder Rita Schwartz said Book will fight for the nearly half a million people who voted “yes’’ to a tax increase earmarked for animal care, and to make sure that its proceeds are spent properly.

She said Book will be paid from a political action committee that Pets’ Trust Miami established before the November election.

In a barrage of emails and phone calls to county government office, some angry citizens accused Gimenez of betraying the animals; others of betraying the nearly 500,000 voters who in November approved a nominal property tax increase to improve animal services in a non-binding vote.

That would have raised an estimated $19 million in a year, costing the average property owner $20.

Some animal advocates went directly to the mayor’s Facebook page.

“What nerve to post a picture of the American flag when you just killed democracy... and thousands more homeless dogs and cats in Miami Dade shelters,’’ wrote poster Jennifer Cohen.

On Tuesday, Gimenez said: “We must respect the will of the voters.”

The next day he said he’d “heard from several people’’ who claimed they would not have favored the measure if it had been binding. He ditched the plan but vowed to “find’’ $4.5 million in the budget for animal care, which would limit any tax-rate increase to money for libraries and fire-rescue.

Not enough, said Book.

“Our position is that if we can’t get full implementation, let’s see if there’s a way to compromise, but a quarter of the money? That’s not OK.’’

County spokesman Fernando Figueredo insisted Gimenez is “committed to the spirit of the ballot question,’’ but lacks support from the commission, which recently unanimously accepted a blueprint for spending the $19 million that Animal Services Director Alex Muñoz compiled.

Figueredo said that with the promised $4.5 million, in addition to its $10 million budget, Animal Services can “create programs to expand adoptions and help to get [cats and dogs] off the streets, and also increase spay/neuter, and create programs to save the most at-risk animals by supporting rescue groups.’’

With that, he said, “We can at least being the process of ‘no kill.’ This mayor has been the most supportive of ‘no kill.’ It’s not like he’s backing away, but this year it’s not the right time.’’

Pets’ Trust, which fought to put the question of a possible tax increase on the county ballot and establish a board to oversee grants to rescue groups from the $19 million, had as its cornerstone a massive free and low-cost sterilization campaign to stem pet overpopulation and by extension, Animal Services intakes.

Such surgeries would have been conducted out of existing warehouses or modular structures in poor neighborhoods where residents don’t have access to retail vets, and couldn’t afford them even if they existed. Spay-neuter operations can cost up to $600 in private vet offices.

Muñoz incorporated that idea into his blueprint, but stripped it out after the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association hired its own powerhouse lobbyist, state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a former County Commission chairman, to oppose the clinics.

The commission accepted the blueprint, with the skeptical support of Pets’ Trust advocates who doubted that retail vets could or would perform 1,500 extra sterilizations per week, the target number for helping Miami-Dade become a “no kill’’ municipality — a goal that the commission unanimously supported last year.

“No kill’’ means a 90/10 percent “save rate.’’ According to Muñoz, the save rate for dogs has reached 80 percent, 60 percent for cats, which are mostly feral and released to their colonies after being sterilized.

For Pets’ Trust co-founder Michael Rosenberg, the businessman who captained the movement with Schwartz, a furniture-store owner, and marketer Lindsay Gorton, the mayor’s 180-degree turnaround is deeply personal.

Rosenberg, active in Kendall civic affairs, heard about the shelter’s kill rate — often more than 20,000 animals a year — and asked to spend a day in the euthanasia room.

He emerged determined to stop the carnage, and threw himself into the Pets’ Trust cause, even spending a weekend in a shelter dog run — an arrangement that the mayor approved.

Seasoned observers of Miami-Dade politics told Rosenberg he was wasting his time. The commission never had and never would give animal services the money it needed to stop the killing, they told him. And in a recession, no one would vote for a tax increase.

Still, Pets’ Trust built a coalition among animal-welfare and rescue groups that had deep philosophical differences, and with the encouragement of the mayor and supportive commissioners, chiefly Sally Heyman and Jose “Pepe’’ Diaz, hundreds of volunteers pressed ahead.

The nonbinding straw ballot question received a 65 percent “yes” vote.

In a blistering email to Deputy Mayor Alina Hudak after Gimenez’s about-face last week, Rosenberg noted that “9,000 people voted for the average commissioner, 125,000 people voted for Mayor Gimenez, almost 500,000 for the Pets Trust, and these votes meant nothing.’’

The voters “brought to you a solution...so creative that the entire country is looking at it. They call it the ‘Miami Model,’” he wrote. “Then you killed it...You try to hide behind ‘straw and non-binding.’ So sad.’’

Rosenberg said he was hearing from people who voted against the ballot measure not because they didn’t want to help animals, but because “‘we told you the politicians would mess it up...’ The truth is, tens of thousands voted against this because they did not have faith in their leaders. You just proved them correct.’’

The most vocal opponent of a tax increase for animals has been District 13 Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who in a statement Friday said he was “pleased that Mayor Carlos Gimenez has dropped his request to raise a portion of the millage rate to fund the animal care initiative.’’

He said he plans to “present a resolution to create a mechanism for private fund raising and voluntary donations that has county oversight and accountability to ensure money is properly spent for animal welfare.”

Rosenberg scoffed that Bovo — whom he invites to the euthanasia room in every email — “believes that we can put jars in stores to collect donations to solve the problem.”

The Pets Trust contends its plan would ultimately save taxpayer money. Neutering or spaying would cost a fraction of the hundreds of dollars it costs to keep an animal at the shelter for the mandatory period before it is euthanized.

On the straw ballot, Bovo said, “unfortunately the voters were given only one choice to make: raise taxes to provide for animal welfare or let the pets die. As an owner of two Golden Retrievers, I am committed to working to achieve the goal set out by the Straw Ballot Question. However, using a millage increase to fund enhanced animal services sets a very dangerous precedent and invites philanthropic organizations to pursue future non-binding straw polls as a vehicle for funding.’’

District 4’s Sally Heyman, who chairs the commission’s Public Safety and Animal Services Committee, is livid. She, too, thought Gimenez was onboard.

“This has been a work in progress for two years,’’ she fumed. “What’s significant about this is that we went to the people,’’ who have demonstrated over and over, with causes like the Children’s Trust, the Homeless Trust and public education, that they’ll tax themselves for the common good.

“People who will never go to Jackson Memorial Hospital pay for it because they know the value of it for the poor people who need the safety net,’’ she said, and that’s how they felt about animals.

She noted that the kill-to-save rate has dropped significantly at the shelter since it became its own department in 2005, but the “no kill’’ objective needed the $19 million boost, which would have come up for review every budget year.

“If we have the ability to get in front of [overpopulation], it will be a cost saving,’’ Heyman said.

She angrily noted that the same commissioners who voted for the blueprint then persuaded Gimenez not to fund it because they oppose tax increases represent neighborhoods that would have benefitted most from free sterilizations clinics.

She urged those who got active for the first time with Pets’ Trust not to lose faith in their government.

Too late for Lissa Terese Sclichter of Homestead, who said in an email to Gimenez: “We voted to raise our taxes to prevent this from happening. Now PLEASE, raise our taxes! Implement the Pets’ Trust! We don’t care if you raise our taxes for the firefighters and other things, too, but please help us stop this’’ — she included a photo of a dog killed in the road — “from being our daily South Dade County street scene!’’

Schlichter, 53, a skincare specialist, said she registered for the first time so she could vote for the ballot question. What happened confirmed her long-held suspicions.

“Voting never makes a difference,’’ she said.

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