Garden Grove Opts Out of County Contract for Animal Care

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Orange County's animal services department has been facing increased criticism in recent years.

The Garden Grove City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to join three other cities in leaving Orange County Animal Care for the local Humane Society, ahead of a deadline next month for cities to decide whether to commit to a ten-year contract with the county’s animal services agency.

The city’s decision to leave the agency was prompted by a steep increase in the county’s charges for animal services, which rose from $729,000 in the 2011-2012 to more than $1.3 million for 2015-2016, according to a staff report.

The county is also requiring that its contract cities chip in for the construction of a new $35 million county animal shelter. Had Garden Grove, which is the third largest user of OC Animal Care, decided to stay with the county, it would have been on the hook for $4.1 million over ten years.

Before making their decision, council members received many emails and comments both in support of the county and against it, including a letter from Lake Forest city councilman Jim Gardner, who tried unsuccessfully to convince his own colleagues to terminate their contract with the county.

On Tuesday, Luis Schmidt, a representative of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), urged the council to consider the level of quality and experience OC Animal Care could provide and pointed to a decision by the city of Newport Beach to terminate a contract with the Humane Society after complaints of poor conditions for animals and mark-ups on the price of medications.

“You’re making an investment for the entire community…Last week, six cities decided to continue their services with Orange County,” said Schmidt. “They’re trained, quality employees.”

Activists, meanwhile, pointed to problems with the county’s management culture and the shelter and allegations that the county has falsified kill rates.

“They can build a shelter…but if you have a staff, administration that is pro-kill, a new shelter isn’t going to change the shelter conditions that exist,” said Sharon Logan, who settled a lawsuit against the county for high euthanasia rates last year.

Of the 18 cities that contract with OC Animal Care, three others, Rancho Santa Margarita, Laguna Hills and Stanton recently opted to terminate their contract with the agency.

It’s still unclear how much the city will save by contracting with the Humane Society and operating licensing services in house. The city stands to save more than $8.1 million over the next decade, according to a city staff report.

The new program’s operating costs are estimated to be $1,327,160 in the first year, and $878,360 each year thereafter, according to the staff report. Included in the cost estimate is an annual payment of about $300,000 to the Humane Society over a five-year contract. The costs will be offset by an estimated $400,000 each year in revenue from licenses, according to the staff report.

Critics from OCEA and Animal Care employees told the council that the city failed to account for a number of unexpected costs that are already available through the county, such as after-hours animal care, trap-and-release programs, employee training and animal disposal.

Animal Control Officer Kyle Warner questioned whether the city would have enough capacity to handle large-scale animal hoarding cases, fight lawsuits and service calls from a city of 180,000.

“You’re pinching pennies on a public safety program such as this. Ultimately it will cost the city more in the long run,” Warner said. “There’s no way the city could maintain the level of services it now receives.”

The city is also on the hook for an estimated $505,192 in unpaid license fees by Garden Grove residents that the County was unable to collect. If the city does decide to return to OC Animal Care in the future, they will need the approval of the other contract cities and will still have to contribute to the cost of the new shelter.

City Manager Scott Stiles acknowledged that there would be unexpected costs.

“We recognize there will be missing components. As we collect revenues we may allocate some of those resources to anything we may have overlooked, and grow along with the resources we have,” said Stiles.

Although several councilmembers were skeptical of the plan at a meeting in March, they voted unanimously to approve the new contract, with the exception of councilman Kris Beard, who recused himself because he works for Orange County Community Services, which oversees animal services.

“We’ve seen documented problems with the county and the Humane Society, so there’s problems in general with Animal Care overall,” said mayor Bao Nguyen. “I’m hoping that if we can go for the lower cost, and even if we account for some of these unforeseen costs, that we can make those demands for improvements.”

Councilman Phat Bui said that money would be better spent on other services, such as adding more police officers.

“We just don’t have the money to put into this,” Bui said.

Update: This story was updated 4/28 at 3:30 p.m. to include Stanton among the cities that opted out of the OC Animal Care contract.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.