SPCA may continue animal control -- for a price

But Fresno looking to build dog pound

ghostetter@fresnobee.comMarch 29, 2013 

Fresno's long fight over animal control appears headed toward an armistice.

A resolution, though, probably remains years -- and lots of money -- away.

City Manager Mark Scott said it's likely that the SPCA will continue providing a full array of animal-control services to the city for at least another year and perhaps two.

That's the good news for a City Hall that last summer feared it would have to jerry-rig its own dog-catching business by the time football season rolled around.

But there's bad news for a City Hall struggling to balance its books -- the Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will need $1 million over and above the $2.2 million per year that the city had been paying.

That's not all. The SPCA for more than a year has said it wants out of the dog-pound business. This narrow but important slice of the animal-control world is often where injured, ill or unwanted animals get euthanized.

Scott said the city's long-term solution is to build and operate its dog pound, retain the SPCA for all other animal-control services and get on the good side of animal-rescue groups to keep the euthanasia toll as low as possible.

Finding a way to pay

The new pound could go on the edge of the city's sewer farm west of town.

"It looks like the pieces go together," Scott said. "Now we have to find out how to pay for it." Scott said he's talked with SPCA officials, who appear on board with the plan's general thrust. Scott said he has yet to brief council members but hopes to bring them a proposed contract by early April.

It's far from clear whether the deal will get a warm reception.

"Maybe this should be part of the budget discussion," said Council President Blong Xiong, referring to annual budget hearings slated for May or June. "What's another few weeks when we're talking about a million dollars that we may or may not have?" There's another piece of the puzzle that, while not absolutely necessary, would make part of Scott's plan less of a financial burden to City Hall.

An unusual chain of events over the past 18 months led the city and the county, once partners with the SPCA, to go their separate animal-control ways. Scott said he'd love to mend fences with the county and see the two sides team up to fund and operate the new dog pound.

That notion gets a reception from Supervisor Henry R. Perea even more chilly than Xiong's.

"Is today April 1?" Perea asked.

Perea knew it wasn't April Fool's Day. But he played a key role in moving the county's animal-control responsibilities to a private vendor, a task he feels was made more frustrating by City Hall's dillydallying after the SPCA contracts were canceled last year. Perea, never shy about needling the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin, still thinks the best answer is an animal-control sales tax initiative similar to the one that funds Chaffee Zoo operations.

Besides, Perea said, Scott's plan sounds like the cynical shifting of unacceptably high euthanasia rates from a beleaguered SPCA to a thicker-skinned City Hall.

"That would be a very bad statement to our community," Perea said.

SPCA officials did not return The Fresno Bee's messages.

On the search

Scott for now seems indifferent to any tut-tutting from potential critics. Some nine months ago, city officials were scouring the City Yard for abandoned pickups that could double as dog-catching trucks and sizing up an empty building by Chukchansi Park as a potential dog pound. City Hall was in panic mode because the SPCA had vowed to fly the coop, yet there was nothing on the horizon that could begin to handle thousands of loose animals spread over 105 miles of urban landscape.

Scott now sees City Hall on the verge of some real breathing room.

The descent into this mess is almost too complicated for review. It's sufficient to note that the SPCA has done the often thankless job of animal control in Fresno for more than 50 years. By mid-2011, critics had a half-century of beefs and the courage to publicly press their case. Too many animals were being put down, they said. SPCA board meetings were unnecessarily closed to the public, they said.

Council Member Clint Olivier soon took up the critics' cause, saying the $2.2 million that City Hall paid each year to the SPCA was the perfect wedge to force transparency on the nonprofit. He and the critics vowed to form an alliance that would deliver a state-of-the-art animal-control business model, leaving the SPCA in the dust.

Then the SPCA called everyone's bluff. SPCA officials early last year said they were invoking a clause in their city and county contracts. They said they'd do animal control for another six months, then happily head into the sunset free of the money-losing agreements. Oct. 1 was the day of reckoning.

The alliance never fulfilled its promise. Perea and the county found their alternative with a small operation run by Liberty Animal Control Services at the old morgue. City officials, stuck with responsibilities far more daunting than the county's, asked the SPCA for a six-month extension to March 31.

Costs adding up

The SPCA agreed, but City Hall had to throw in a sweetener. The cost for the half-year's work ending March 31 is $1.6 million ($1.1 million for a half-year plus another $500,000).

Scott was stingy with details of the contract he'll pitch to the council. The SPCA will need to be paid for the last three months of fiscal year 2013 (April, May and June). Scott said the cost of SPCA's services for fiscal year 2014 would be about $3.2 million -- $1 million more than the city was willing to pay two years ago.

Scott said he might ask the SPCA to do everything, including the dog-pound chores, in fiscal year 2015 as well.

Eventually, though, City Hall's breathing room will disappear. The need for a dog pound won't.

"We're not ready to build it," Scott said. "We are ready to start evaluating."

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