Orange County might be lurching toward a more regional system of animal shelters and education programs.
In response to significant potential cuts to animal services, a majority of county supervisors Tuesday balked at further taxpayer subsidies, but supported fee increases to cover most of a $626,000 funding gap.
“I haven’t received one complaint” about current fees being too high, said Chairman Shawn Nelson. “We’re charging people for what it costs to use the system, and nobody’s complaining.”
Supervisor Moorlach also supported the fee increase, as opposed to drawing from taxpayer funds or making cuts.
“Having a pet is a choice, and so I think if you want to own a pet then there should be some commensurate expenses that go with that opportunity,” said Moorlach.
The debate, meanwhile, was broadened to what exactly the county’s role should be, with a majority of supervisors agreeing they need to be stronger regional leaders on the issue.
Currently, half of Orange County’s 34 cities pay the county to provide animal control and shelter services for their jurisdictions. The rest of the cities, several of which are in South County, handle services on their own.
Supervisors argued the system could be made more efficient if they took a stronger leadership role.
The chief advocate of that approach was Nelson, who considers animal control to be a regional issue.
“Let’s work on a model to fund and run a regional system, bring in other [cities] if we can…have a vision, build a proper new facility for the long – several decades – term,” said Nelson.
While the county currently plans to build one big shelter in Tustin, the discussion Tuesday seemed to indicate movement toward several smaller regional shelters.
If supervisors had moved forward with cuts, the county’s animal shelter would be closed on Mondays, animal intake would end at 6 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., and a public education officer would be laid off, among other reductions.
Instead, supervisors directed staff to come back with a plan for raising fees and exploring the possibility of closing the shelter for one day per week.
Staff were also told to look at automatic fee increases tied to cost of living; ways the county can build a new animal shelter; bring in new contract cities, and guarantee cities stay in for the long haul.
The supervisors ultimately voted 3-1 for that approach, with Supervisor Janet Nguyen opposing and Vice Chair Pat Bates abstaining.
“I will not support a fee increase,” said Nguyen, adding that her constituents are already burdened with costs.
Both Nguyen and Bates – who are running for state Senate this year – preferred using taxpayer money from the county general fund to cover the $626,000 funding gap as opposed to voting to increase fees.
The decision to not make cuts followed back-to-back pleas from 11 animal activists, shelter volunteers and members of the public.
Speakers pointed to the hundreds of volunteers who care for the animals as evidence proposed cuts to community outreach workers were a mistake.
“Literally thousands of kittens over the past seven years have been available for adoption, have not been euthanized, because of this program,” said Celesta Peterson, a longtime volunteer at the shelter.
More than 400 volunteers donated a total of over 100,000 hours of their time last year to helping at the animal shelter, added another volunteer, Pat Highfill.
The volunteers visit libraries to teach the importance of spaying and neutering pets and placing microchips on them, she added, as well as talk about the importance of vaccinations and the correct way to approach dogs.
Doing so, Highfill said, cuts “down on the number of possible bite [incidents] in the county.”
Others pointed to the intangible benefits for investing in animal services.
“Our animals – they make such a difference in our lives. They are tremendous givers of life to all of us,” said Trabuco Canyon resident Toni Sparks. “Every time we play with a kitten, we are bringing joy into our hearts.”
One speaker called out Nguyen for apparently not paying attention to public comments.
“I’m very disappointed in Supervisor Nguyen [who] has had her head down” while speakers were addressing the board, said Laguna Beach resident Judie Mancuso. “We hope that you take this very, very seriously.”
Advocates also called on supervisors to implement what they considered forward-thinking laws in Riverside County regarding spaying, neutering and microchip requirements.
Moorlach later said such examples are helpful as he and his colleagues try to forge a path forward.
Amid the sometimes-heated debate, advocates and supervisors alike credited the county’s animal services director, Ryan Drabek, with dramatically improving public satisfaction with his agency, as well as reducing the shelter population through adoption and outreach efforts.
Drabek and others emphasized the importance of ramping up programs for spaying and neutering pets, as well as identification chips, as a way to avoid a need for pets to end up at the shelter in the first place.
“You want to prevent them from ever coming into the shelter if you care about cost,” said Mancuso.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated the location of the proposed new shelter. It would be in Tustin.