Miami-Dade

Dreams of a Dade Pets’ Trust dashed at meeting

 

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

Animal lovers, convinced that marshalling nearly half-a-million votes during the November election would herald the “no kill’’ era at Miami-Dade’s animal shelter, saw their dreams die Tuesday as the County Commission decided not to raise property tax rates, even the one voters said they’d gladly pay to save unwanted pets.

“Welcome to politics,’’ lobbyist Ron Book told his crestfallen clients: members of the Pets’ Trust Miami board, who thought they’d won an extra $19 million for rescue groups and the county shelter.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he’d find $4 million in the budget for the Animal Services Department. Book tried to console his clients by saying there was still a chance for more, as interest groups jockey before the final budget vote in September.

“We will not relent!’’ he vowed. The effort, he told his clients, “is a marathon, not a sprint.’’

He told the commission that in his 40-year career as a lobbyist, he’d never had more calls from supporters of his client. He called them “rabid without rabies.’’

The vote came after dozens of animal lovers begged commissioners to honor the nearly 500,000 citizens who approved a $10-per-$100,000 tax-rate increase in a non-binding “straw ballot.’’

That money would have funded high-volume sterilization clinics, with a goal of 50,000-75,000 in a year; responsible pet-ownership education; grants to non-profit rescues; increased adoption and fostering.

Affirming the flat rate: Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, Vice Chairwoman Lynda Bell, commissioners Juan C. Zapata, Bruno Barreiro, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez.

Bell suggested that the commission stop allowing straw ballots.

“Either we vote for it or we don’t,’’ she said.

Bovo said he’d toured the shelter, saw two cats and two dogs “put down,’’ and could barely stand it. Still, he said, “we can’t govern by petition.’’

He suggested clamping down on “irresponsible pet owners’’ and backyard breeders, and putting voluntary donation envelopes in TRIM (proposed property tax) notices.

Opposing the flat rate: Dennis Moss and Sally Heyman — because they wanted more money for libraries, fire-rescue and animals — and Barbara Jordan and Jean Monestime, who wanted more for human services. Commissioner Audrey Edmonson was absent.

Heyman said her office “did not get a single call or email to say, ‘Don’t increase taxes.’ I did get 17 that said, ‘Don’t hurt our libraries’...and ‘Don’t hurt the fire department, 66.’ But overall 252 said, ‘Tax me more because...animals are part of our society.’’’

In a hallway interview, Gimenez said that $4 million would increase the Animal Services Department’s $10 million budget by 40 percent.

“That will go a long way to complying with the wishes of the people without raising taxes,’’ he said, and “support the beginnings of ‘no kill.’’’

About half would come from more than $2 million left over from the short-lived May election to renovate Miami Dolphins’ stadium, the rest from a court decision reducing the county’s obligation to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice next year.

Gimenez said that “common sense’’ dictates that more people oppose a tax increase than those who actually voted for it, and that he was listening to the will of the people in rejecting the Pets’ Trust proposal.

However, no one spoke against the tax increase during some five hours of public comment on Tuesday, and hundreds of emails to his and other government offices — a nearly three-inch stack, when printed out — tell a different story.

While some appeared to be form letters, many berated Gimenez for ignoring voters and by extension, they said, ensuring that more animals will die.

“A healthy dog or cat in that smelly, dirty place of a shelter wagging its tail happy to be thinking it is going home only to be taken to a death room and put to sleep,’’ wrote Janice Garcia. “Now multiply that by 20,000.’’

F. Gerald Montoya wrote: “How are American people supposed to trust our politicians, especially you who fail to grasp the American concept that we vote in this country to stop our leaders from taking over. You are following dictatorship concepts of Third World governments.’’

Animal Services Director Alex Muñoz told commissioners that with the extra money he could hire more veterinarians, expand the trap/neuter/return program for an estimated feral cat population of 400,000, expand existing programs and start new ones.

But instead of 50,000 sterilizations outside the shelter, only 16,000 might be possible.

Attorney Lauri√ Bloom, a longtime rescuer, said throwing $4 million at a $19 million problem is throwing money away.

“Fighting pet overpopulation is akin to fighting infectious disease,’’ she said. “If we inoculate one of every seven or eight people we may have saved some lives, but because the spread of infection will quickly outpace our efforts, we have done almost nothing to sustain our long-term health.’’

Fewer sterilizations means overpopulation “will continue to outpace our efforts in such a way that [sterilization] cannot work as a solution,’’

Among those who addressed the commission in person: Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill, his voice shaking with anger.

He said that as one of those who volunteered to raise their own taxes, he was “insulted’’ that anyone suggest he didn’t know what he was voting for, an argument that several commissioners made.

“I was keenly aware of what I was voting for,’’ Magill said. “Any one of you would love to receive [those votes], yet here we are still here today trying to convince you...It costs five times as much to euthanize an animal as to sterilize it.’’

David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, who spent the better part of a decade campaigning for The Children’s Trust — which inspired Pets’ Trust — said he wouldn’t use euphemisms like “euthanized’’ or “put down.’’

He said that what happens at the shelter is killing, and he called it “a human abomination.’’

The commission chamber was packed with advocates in red, most of whom had been protesting outside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center holding placards that read “Stop the senseless killing of innocent pets’’ and “Don’t muzzle our vote.’’

They erupted in cheers for Lawrence, earning a sharp rebuke from Sosa, who said that this year “more than ever,’’ she heard the anti-tax voice “loud and clear.’’

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