Savaged: County Commishes Suggest Euthanizing Local Humane Society Over Money Dispute
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”— attributed to Mohandas Gandhi
What would you call a group of municipal leaders that was receiving $1.5 million in legally-mandated services from another organization, but paying only $500,000 to receive those services? And what if, as a bonus, they were receiving outcomes far and away superior to other municipalities in the state? You would probably call them “shrewd,” “lucky” or “blessed.”
For around 20 years, Washtenaw County has contracted with the Huron Valley Humane Society (HVHS), originally founded in 1896 as a shelter for abandoned & neglected animals and children, to provide state-mandated animal control and related services. Under the current contract, HVHS receives $500,000 annually to provide these services. However, a breakdown of what the County receives in exchange for this $500K shows that taxpayers are getting an almost unbelievably fantastic bargain.
Let’s take a look at the services HVHS provides:
- Care and placement of abandoned animals (strays) and those left when people are evicted from their homes
- Care and placement of animals recovered from cruelty investigations (sometimes involving dozens of animals). These animals are often housed for months while the cases are being prosecuted
- Care of animals under bite/rabies quarantines
- Lost and found services for pets eventually claimed by owners
- Care of dogs in the process of being deemed dangerous by the courts
- Care and placement of animals brought in for local ordinance-related reasons
- Care and disposition of sick or injured wildlife
- Investigation of animal cruelty situations including the gathering of evidence needed for prosecution
- Collection and disposition of feral cats
- Euthanasia of animals when placement is not possible or for humane reasons
- Maintenance of facility
In addition to these state-mandated services, the HVHS throws in some bonus items, as well:
- Spay & neuter of all placed animals
- Adoption services
- Care and placement of owner-surrendered pets
- A wide variety of educational services to County residents including dog training courses
Here is much of the same information conveyed in graphical form:
The HVHS does all this in a new, state-of-the-art facility paid for through community donations (and a one-time $1 million contribution from the County.) The HVHS annual budget is $4.2 million, paid for by donors along with the contract with the County.
In other words, the Huron Valley Humane Society is a private, not-for-profit corporation that contracts with the County to provide services. The organization is not “funded” by the County, and does not exist because of some largesse from County officials.
HVHS provides a valuable and necessary service at an astonishingly reasonable cost to county taxpayers.
In an effort to trim $17.5 million from their $97.7 million annual budget, the Washtenaw County Commissioners first decided during budget negotiations over the past month that they would slash payment to HVHS by 50 percent, and pay only $250K for the contracted services. When that didn’t sit well with many in the community or on the BOC, Board of Commissioners Chairman Conan Smith offered an alternative that involved some fancy accounting that left HVHS officials steamed. The BOC shifted the cost of the HVHS contract to the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s budget, then combined it with an existing Animal Control allocation for total of $430K. The move not only reduced HVHS’s payment, but dumped additional services onto the Humane Society that are currently covered by the Sheriff’s department.
In any discussion like this, it’s worth comparing costs with some areas around Washtenaw County. Here are the animal control costs for other counties in our region:
|County||Euthanasia Rate||# of Animals/yr||2011 Budget||Expenditure per resident|
Take a look at that second column. The HVHS has a euthanasia rate of only 18 percent. 82 percent of the animals that come through their facility that are eligible to be placed are placed. They are so successful, in fact, that just this week HVHS was awarded Outstanding Large Shelter Award (pdf) by the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance for the second year running.
All of these services and tremendous outcomes at a rate lower than any surrounding county and the Washtenaw County Commission wants to cut it in half.
During the budget discussions regarding the contract with the HVHS, it was apparent that Commissioners were unclear about the County’s obligations with regard to animal control. In addition to a 1919 “Michigan Dog Law,” there are several other ordinances as well. This lack of knowledge about their legal obligations was evidenced in comments at meetings and elsewhere.
During a radio interview, Chair Smith claimed:
Our mandates from the state are very limited. What’s considered a community obligation usually goes far beyond anything we have. The same holds true in all of our human services. In terms of animal control, the mandate is the very minimum service that we’re obligated by law to provide. Anything that we do above and beyond that is considered a discretionary service, but it may be a priority for the community itself. It’s a question of what the law requires versus what the community thinks is the right level of investment.
However, as pointed out in a letter from attorney Suzanne DeVine to Commissioners in early November, there are other laws involved, as well. In her letter, she wrote:
It appears from comments at recent Commissioners’ meetings and Conan Smith’s radio interview that the Commissioners lack information regarding Washtenaw County’s legal obligations under Michigan’s animal cruelty laws. The County’s legal responsibilities with respect to animals extend far beyond the confines of Michigan’s 1919 dog law. The State Legislature has enacted numerous animal laws since 1919, including the animal cruelty statutes which mandate enforcement by county sheriffs and deputies. Enforcement of the animal cruelty laws is not discretionary. A law enforcement officer who fails to investigate and prosecute violations of Michigan’s misdemeanor and felony animal cruelty statutes (MCL 750.49 to MCL 750.51) of which they have “knowledge or reasonable notice” “shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor” under MCL 750.52. Further, MCL 750.53 mandates law enforcements officers to seize “all animals and fowls found in the keeping of [a] person arrested” for violation of state animal cruelty laws. […]
Thanks to its contract with HSHV, Washtenaw County has been compliant with MCL 750.52 and MCL 750.53 and avoided criminal liability. The amount which the County has paid HSHV under the contract is not a donation to a nonprofit, as some commissioners have suggested. Rather, it is a payment for services that state law mandates Washtenaw County, and HSHV as the County’s agent, to perform. The County must enforce state anti-cruelty laws; must seize all animals which are the subject of an arrest for animal cruelty; and must provide adequate care to those animals during their legally mandated impoundments.
In what can only be viewed as a laughable suggestion, Commissioner Wesley Prater suggested the county might have saved hundreds of thousand dollars if it had put out Request for Proposal a long time ago. Clearly he does not comprehend what it would cost the County if the HVHS decides not to renew its contract.
Commissioner Leah Gunn, echoed this absurdity saying, “I don’t understand why the Humane Society cannot take a cut of $70,000 when all of the other nonprofits are taking huge cuts. If they don’t want to do business with us, then we can put out an RFP and find somebody who will.”
Referencing the $1 million gift given to the HVHS during its expansion years ago, and the fact that the County issued bonds on the group’s behalf, saving them considerable interest, Gunn said, “Our past generosity ought to be acknowledged.”
Sheriff Jerry Clayton was also unhappy being politically broad-sided by Conan Smith’s suggestion that the Sheriff’s Department assume responsibility for negotiating the HVHS contract:
Sheriff Jerry Clayton addressed the board at the end of the meeting, expressing concerns that he hadn’t been consulted on the issue. He said he was taken aback, and if the $180,000 from his budget does go to another agency, two of his employees are impacted.
Commissioner Alicia Ping was, perhaps, the most vocal champion of the HVHS, saying “the County should be prepared to pay whatever it takes to cover the cost of mandated services – whether it’s $250,000 or $500,000 or $750,000.”
An excellent review of the Commission’s discussion of this issue can be found at AnnArborChronicle.com.
Some Commissioners have argued that it’s not that they don’t love and value animals, they just have to prioritize people before animals. But, as HVHS Executive Director Tanya Hilgendorf reminded me, this is a “people problem.”
“If anyone understands the impacts of our poor economy, it’s the Humane Society,” she said. “A big part of the reason that we’re seeing so many more animals right now is because they are being turned in because people can no longer afford to keep them.”
The debate over the County’s contract with the Huron Valley Humane Society epitomizes the phrase “penny wise but pound foolish.” County taxpayers have enjoyed a tremendous bargain in exchange for services and outcomes that exceed those in all of the counties around us. Yet, there are those on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners who believe they are doing the HVHS a big favor by working with them. The part I find most egregious in all of this backing and forthing by the Washtenaw County Commissioners is the disrespect shown to the 800+ volunteers and dedicated staff members of this organization. This includes the vast network of foster homes cultivated by the HVHS that housed 1,500 animals last year before they were placed.
I’ll finish with an excerpt from a statement from the manager of the Humane Society’s shelter, Todd St. Clair, that demonstrates the level of commitment from shelter staff and volunteers:
There is a very real psychological disorder in animal welfare called “compassion fatigue,” among other things, it creates depression and anxiety. It is something we must manage every single day—to ensure that people cope in ways that will help them regain health rather than turning to drugs or alcohol or other negative coping mechanisms, and so they can go home and try to have a decent home life. We teach our staff about effective ways of dealing with grief and loss. We have a weekly support group so people can talk about the trauma or loss that they experienced that week.
In addition to the stress and grief that comes from regular euthanasia, our people are daily witnesses of trauma—whether it a lab covered in cigarette burns or a kitten with her tail cut off. Brain science now tells us that there are real and lasting effects similar to PTSD to being a caretaker of the victims of abuse—especially innocent victims who rely on us for protection.
One of my staff said to me the other day, “It is a good day when I don’t go home and cry.” This community benefits from having HSHV provide this work because we have animal lovers who put their own emotional health on the line, to do the hard work and to make sure it is done with compassion.
The other day I put down a beautiful husky brought in from a hoarder case with 39 other animals that lived locked in a small bedroom for three months on 6 inches of feces that eventually became the floor. The husky was ruined by his neglect and after careful assessment, it was decided that he could not be safely adopted out. But this is a dog that we spent time with. We gave treatment to. We gave comfort to. We fed. We walked. His fate was not his fault. And, we, the animal lovers at HSHV put him to death… for you. And the 6 foot 4 male staff person who helped me carry him to the freezer cried to himself as he cleaned out his empty kennel.
Washtenaw County is lucky and we are blessed to have the Huron Valley Humane Society in our community. It’s high time all of the members of County Commission realized it.
Photos by Anne C. Savage. For more photos of the Huron Valley Humane Society from Anne’s recent tour there, visit her blog.
For more of Chris Savage’s writing, visit Eclectablog.
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