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County could charge more for dog licenses

The Orange County Board of Supervisors this week voted to consider fee hikes to bridge a budget shortfall in what staff members and volunteers said is an animal-control agency still recovering from years of disarray and accusations of mismanagement.

County staff members will calculate a proposed fee structure for services, such as pet licensing and microchipping, to be brought before the board during the county's annual budgeting process next month.

The 3-1 vote, with one abstention, came after what Board Chairman Shawn Nelson called a "robust" discussion that touched on a broader philosophical quandary surrounding the future of Orange County Animal Care: What role should the board play in regulating an agency that functions largely through service fees and contracts with 17 of Orange County's cities?

And what is the county's burden to pay for it?

"We need to do some serious looking at what our model is," said Supervisor John Moorlach.

Moorlach, along with Nelson and Supervisor Todd Spitzer, voted in favor of moving forward with user-fee increases, while Supervisor Janet Nguyen voted against that route. Supervisor Pat Bates abstained.

About a dozen speakers, many of whom are regular shelter volunteers or local animal advocates, pleaded with supervisors to avoid deep service cuts — one of three options before the board aimed at making up the $626,300 shortfall of the approximately $18 million budget.

The proposed cuts — which would have shuttered the county's animal shelter on Mondays, cut down animal intake hours, eliminated a public education officer's position and reduced a community outreach supervisor's job to half-time — were the least desirable way of making up that difference, speakers told the board.

The agency is understaffed and, as a result, could be forced to contend with a rise in workers' compensation costs, said Kathleen Sage, speaking on behalf of the union that represents kennel attendants.

The job "has become Russian roulette," she said. "It's not a question of, 'Will they get injured?' It's a question of 'When they will get injured?'"

According to a staff report before the board at its meeting Tuesday, the department is operating with 15% of 139 positions vacant to decrease costs.

Two other options detailed in the report were bumping up the agency's budget with money from the county's general fund or raising fees.

"I don't see the logic in not approving a modest budget increase," said Sharon Hayhoe, who founded the Noble Friends Foundation for OC Animal Care, adding that the agency has continued a decade-long transformation under Director Ryan Drabek, who took the job in 2010. "It's a whole different animal now — pun intended."

Added Judie Mancuso, a Laguna Beach animal advocate and state veterinary medical board member: "The shelter and volunteers have gone above and beyond what other shelters in the state have done [in terms of encouraging spaying and neutering pets]. Now we need your support to do the right thing."

Although most of those fees haven't been changed since about 2008, a round of proposed increases that supervisors shot down in January would have pushed costs for pet owners higher than those in neighboring jurisdictions.

So Bates and Nguyen resisted that option, saying taxpayers shouldn't have to shoulder the extra burden.

Bates asked if the agency and the county could strike a compromise — perhaps with the county paying for just a part of the shortfall and looking for different, less painful cuts.

Drabek told the board the cuts proposed in the staff report would slash the department's operations to the bare minimum.

Already, contract cities agreed to kick in $780,200 to prevent any service reductions, other than the ones listed in the report. Otherwise, the budget gap would have been larger — about $1.4 million.

Nevertheless, Nguyen said she'd rather make up the remaining difference out of the county's general fund than charge constituents more to keep their pets, which she likened to beloved family members.

Now, a year-long license for a neutered or spayed dog will set an owner back $24, while a microchip implant and registration fee is $15. Under the fee structure proposed in January, those would go up to $27 and $17, respectively, though the board asked the department to come up with a different fee structure that better aligns with neighboring agencies.

By contrast, Newport Beach's yearly license for a spayed or neutered dog is $12. Irvine charges $20 per year for one- and two-year licenses for altered dogs, but a three-year license is $50. In Costa Mesa, owners of altered dogs must pay a $25 annual license.

Nelson pointed out, "Not one speaker complained about the fees.

"We're charging people for what it costs to use the system," he said.

Ultimately, though, he said the county should be working toward an efficiently run regional system, rather than a piecemeal collaboration between some cities and the county.

"We should either lead and take charge of the regional system," Nelson said, "or admit we're not capable and just get out of the business."

Some cities handle their own animal-control services, including Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Irvine, while others operate joint agencies. Outsourcing to a private organization is another possibility.

Currently, the county is "responsible for the administration and provision of OC Animal Care services as a regional provider," despite the fact only a small portion of the area the agency serves falls under the county's direct supervision, in unincorporated areas, according to the staff report.

Meanwhile, "the cities have relatively little input" in the way the agency is run, but shoulder most of its costs.

Still, the county and Animal Care contract cities are moving toward building a new animal shelter at the former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin site, on land that the county has agreed to provide for free, along with $5 million to get construction started.

As part of its vote this week, the board asked staff members to come back with recommendations to make the regional animal control agency operate more smoothly.

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