Miami-Dade commission OKs animal welfare plan

06/18/2013 11:41 AM

06/18/2013 11:17 PM

The Miami-Dade County Commission on Tuesday accepted a groundbreaking plan to stop the killing of adoptable dogs and cats at the county shelter, and curb pet overpopulation.

Commissioner Jose “Pepe’’ Diaz, the measure’s sponsor, said he would follow up with legislation authorizing Mayor Carlos Gimenez to budget the money that a $10-per-$100,000 property tax increase will generate for animal welfare, perhaps as much as $20 million annually.

The increase got overwhelming public support when it appeared on the November ballot as a nonbinding question. Commissioners had agreed to let voters be their guide in the matter, and nearly 65 percent of all who voted, some 500,000 people, sided with the animals.

“The citizens said, at the end of the day, ‘We’ll pay a little more,’’’ Diaz said. “It was very clear.’’

The plan, which Animal Services Director Alex Muñoz assembled, proposes widely available free and low-cost sterilizations and responsible pet ownership programs as the best the way to achieve the “no kill’’ goal that commissioners set last summer.

“For the first time in history, there is a solution to stop killing 20,000 adoptable animals [in Miami-Dade], which has been going on for decades,’’ said Rita Schwartz, the South Miami furniture-store owner who co-founded Pets Trust Miami, the grassroots group that promoted the ballot question.

She and other animal advocates sported red paw-print bandannas, and left the commission chambers elated at the 12-0 vote.

Commissioner Sally A. Heyman, who heads the Public Safety and Animal Services Committee and supported the plan, was unable to make the meeting because of a personal issue.

Despite her vote, Commissioner Barbara Jordan wondered if spending millions on animals made sense when she’s getting calls from elderly feeding programs short on money and “we have to cut 400 slots in Head Start because of sequester.’’

Animal Services would get much of the money to beef up its veterinary staff, keep its mobile spay/neuter van on the road seven days a week, put more examining tables in the new shelter it plans to open in January, and educate the public on how to treat their pets so that fewer animals wind up at the shelter.

Nonprofit rescue groups also would be able to apply for grants. An advisory board would make recommendations to the commission, which would decide which groups’ projects to fund and periodically review the plan’s effectiveness.

But missing from the final plan was a provision that animal activists considered crucial: dedicated, high-volume spay/neuter clinics in low-income parts of town with few veterinary hospitals.

After the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association opposed the clinics, Heyman’s committee axed the provision.

The vets’ group said that its 167 member clinics could handle an extra 1,500 weekly sterilizations, which Muñoz and Pets Trust say must be done to advance the “no kill’’ agenda.

The county wants to bring the “save rate’’ for cats and dogs at the shelter to 90 percent, and substantially slow the parade of animals into the shelter. Some animals are so sick or injured that for humane reasons, they must be euthanized, Muñoz said.

The shelter gets more than 30,000 animals a year, sometimes up to 37,000. So far this year, nearly 80 percent of dogs and 60 percent of cats have found new homes or, in the case of wild cats, been returned to their colonies after being sterilized.

“We’ve done an outstanding job of bringing down the kill rate, but we have a long way to go,’’ Diaz said.

He said the goal is not only to save animals, but “save the money we’re using to kill animals.’’

If that were achieved, the county would allocate less than $20 million for the animal welfare plan, Diaz added.

That $20 million figure, which Pets Trust proposed last year to achieve “no kill,’’ was based on advice and analysis from experts around the country.

It’s a number that’s bound to be debated. Commissioner Esteban Bovo said that while “nobody is going to vote to kill animals,’’ taxpayers need to know what that will cost.

He doubted that some voters realized what the straw vote meant, likening it to a “push poll:’’ a kind of political telemarketing that seeks to influence voters rather than assess where they stand.

“We should look at ways of funding this that’s not on someone’s [annual tax] notices,’’ he said.

But it is the commission’s longstanding failure to adequately fund Animal Services that gave rise to Pets Trust, said co-founder Michael Rosenberg, a Kendall businessman.

For most of its history, the department wasn’t even a department, but a division of the police or public works, and got no general-fund money at all, but had to survive on fees and fines.

Only in 2005 did it become a budgeted department.

“For the last 30 years, the commissioners have not voted to properly fund Animal Services, so the Pets Trust went to the community and said, ‘Would you like to solve this problem once and for all?’ And the community overwhelmingly said ‘yes.’

“Now the commissioners have to implement what the voters said.’’

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