Miami-Dade County

Pets’ group fails to secure more funding for animal services

Veronica Vazquez is licked by a puppy as she does paperwork for four homeless puppies, which arrived at the Miami-Dade County Animal Services shelter Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 in Medley.
Veronica Vazquez is licked by a puppy as she does paperwork for four homeless puppies, which arrived at the Miami-Dade County Animal Services shelter Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 in Medley. AP

County commissioners on Wednesday rejected a $13 million funding request by the Pets’ Trust advocacy group, noting Miami-Dade’s animal shelter already benefits from a string of budget increases.

Technically, the proposal stalled in a tie vote before the Metropolitan Services committee. But under procedural rules, the tie vote is the equivalent of a defeat and marks the latest political setback for one of the county’s most vocal advocacy groups. Commissioners on both sides of the vote noted improving survival rates at the shelter and a budget up 45 percent in four years.

“I do feel we have accomplished almost everything that was requested,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, the chairwoman of the committee who also was one of two yes votes for the proposal. She said she was willing to send the plan on to the full commission but shouldn’t be considered a supporter for a final vote.

The proposal by Commissioner Xavier Suarez would have shifted $13 million from unspecified sources within the 2016 budget to Animal Services and used the money to boost spay and neuter services in underserved areas, including Hialeah, Homestead, Liberty City and North Miami. The idea was to continue the surge of funding for several years and allow the county to sterilize a large number of homeless animals. With the population of strays limited in their ability to reproduce, advocates argued, Miami-Dade then wouldn’t face a stream of unwanted cats and dogs at shelters.

“If we do this right, we won’t have to spend a lot of this money in the future,” Suarez said.

Suarez designed the measure to match the funding contemplated in a 2012 non-binding ballot item that asked voters to endorse a special property-tax for animal services. Voters passed the “Pets’ Trust” question but commissioners opted not to create the tax, saying they weren’t convinced residents were truly on board with a tax hike for animals. With an improved economy and rising property-tax revenue, Suarez said the same money could be found within the existing $6.8 billion budget.

“I think we need to really fund fully what the voters approved,” Suarez said.

Largely thanks to a policy of sterilizing homeless cats and then releasing them back to the streets, Miami-Dade’s lone animal shelter has seen a significant increase in its survival rate. In 2011, about 50 percent of animals who entered the shelter left alive. Now that figure is to 81 percent, according to county statistics.

Of the nearly 25,000 animals released alive in 2014, about 8,200 were cats in the treat-and-release program. That’s almost one out of every three saved animals. In 2012, when the program started, only 821 cats were released back onto the streets. More than 7,000 were euthanized that year to make way for new sheltered animals. In 2014, about 2,300 cats were euthanized — a 68 percent drop.

The agency also launched several initiatives to find homes for unwanted pets, particularly dogs: rules were streamlined to make it easier for people providing temporary foster homes for animals to become permanent owners; Miami-Dade pays transport groups to ship unwanted dogs and cats to rescue groups out of the county and adoption outreach efforts are on the rise.

Leaders of the Pets Trust question the county’s statistics, particularly whether the intake numbers are being kept low by the tax-funded shelter, making it harder for animal to be surrendered. The advocates contend more dollars are needed to get control of the stray population, and that Miami-Dade voters have already declared their willingness to pay to ease animal suffering.

“We speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Sharon Shaw told commissioners. She was one of dozens of supporters in red T-shirts who filled the middle section of the commission chambers. “The animals count on us, and we are counting on you.”

Suarez isn’t a member of the Metropolitan Services committee, and he needed three of the four votes to pass the measure onto the full 13-member commission. Commissioner Juan C. Zapata joined Jordan in voting yes, though he said later he wouldn’t support the funding plan in the end. Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Sally Heyman voted no.

“I don’t believe this resolution is needed,” Diaz said. “Everything is being handled — within a balanced budget.”