Puppy power pushes Miami-Dade Pets’ Trust proposal

Brazenly bypassing a requirement to register with the clerk of the board, a lobbyist for a proposed Miami-Dade Pets’ Trust took his case directly to county commissioners on Tuesday.

The procedural lapse notwithstanding, several members of the Public Safety and Healthcare Administration Committee received him warmly. In fact, they snuggled him while deciding if voters should get a say on whether to tax themselves to hike county funding of animal care.

It’s unclear whether the last-minute influence of a floppy-eared mutt or months of nonstop work by animal advocates did the trick, but the four present members of the six-person committee agreed to place a non-binding Pets’ Trust initiative before voters on Nov. 6.

If voters support it, advocates will bring the measure — which calls for a tax increase of 10.79 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value — to the full commission, said Kendall businessman Michael Rosenberg, who conceived the trust idea last year.

Commissioner Sally Heyman sponsored the straw-vote proposal, which Commissioner Lynda Bell seconded. Committee Chairman Jose “Pepe” Diaz and Commissioner Barbara Jordan also voted in favor, though Jordan said she wasn’t sure she’d do so in the end, given the county’s human-services needs. Commissioners Javier Souto and Esteban Bovo were absent.

The straw ballot is meant to gauge public support for the tax, which would underwrite a steady revenue stream for programs to take the load off Miami-Dade Animal Services, which has a $9 million budget. The agency puts to death about 20,000 unwanted cats and dogs each year.

Under other circumstances, the stray puppy might have been one of them. A homeless man was offering him to passersby outside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center just as trust supporters gathered for the meeting.

Dee Chess, of Friends Forever Rescue, came up with $50 for the homeless man. She held out the puppy to Diaz, who protested feebly before reaching out.

“You’re going to run the meeting with me,” he said to the dog, holding it aloft.

The Pets’ Trust is based on the county’s Homeless Trust and Children’s Trust, which won voter approval for modest tax increases to fund programs for needy citizens.

Pets’ Trust boosters estimate the average household would pay less than $20 a year to help battle pet overpopulation, mainly through low-cost spay/neuter programs and educational outreach.

The county will ultimately save money because maintaining, then killing, the 20,000 animals that don’t find homes costs $300 apiece, advocates say. In contrast, neutering costs $65.

Booster Rita Schwartz said that “rescue groups are bearing our burden, spending their own money trying to fix a problem,” overpopulation, “that is out of control and belongs to a community, not a select few.”

Rescuer Lindsay Gorton, who called pet overpopulation a public health issue, told commissioners that about 100,000 spay/neuters are needed annually to control it and to reduce Animal Services’ burden.

Rosenberg said the commission recently passed a resolution to make Miami-Dade a “no kill” community, usually defined as one that saves 90 percent of its shelter animals. He called the proposed trust “the economic and feasibility plan you need to make ‘no kill’ a true reality, and not just a sign on the wall to make us feel good.”

Heyman sought to dispel misconceptions about the “no kill” resolution, which sets goals but doesn’t provide the money to achieve them. “We did, as a body, not vote to create a ‘no-kill’ county,” she said. “We voted for a report due back in 180 days” that asks for financial ways to achieve the goals.

Bell, cuddling the puppy, added that the citizens of Miami-Dade are “increasingly informed” about overpopulation, and are “demanding ‘no kill,’ so let’s see if everybody’s willing to pay for it.”

The puppy, quickly named Pepe Sal, in honor of Diaz and Heyman, will become the Pets’ Trust mascot, Rosenberg said.

“It was like an angel dropped him off with that homeless guy,” he said. “We weren’t smart enough to make it up.”