County looking to outsource animal services

County looking to outsource animal services
In an effort to cut costs the County Board of Supervisors recently agreed to look into outsourcing the duties of the Department of Animal Services. Photo courtesy of the San Diego Humane Society

REGION — The County’s recent decision to possibly outsource animal services could impact four North County coastal cities, but to what extent is currently unclear.

“We have been starting to look into our options but it is too early to know what we will decide on,” Del Mar City Manager Scott Huth said. “There are some good prospects out there and this could be a positive change for both the county and Del Mar.”

Dan King, assistant city manager for Solana Beach, said officials there are monitoring the situation and “keeping all options open at this time.”

“There is still over a year left on the current contract and we will keep … the dialogue open with the county and all other participating agencies,” he said.

A representative from Encinitas said it is too early in the process to comment.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously March 14 to issue a request for interest to see if any qualified private or public organizations are interested in taking over all or some of the responsibilities of the Department of Animal Services (DAS).

“This is just the beginning,” board chairwoman Dianne Jacob said, noting that an independent review last year identified “key areas of improvement needed in the department.”

That, combined with the retirement of longtime DAS Director Dawn Danielson, “gives us an opportunity to see if there are other entities that can provide services to unincorporated areas,” which Jacob said account for only 30 percent of the department budget.

“The goal is pretty simple to me — to provide the best services at the lowest cost,” she said, adding that the first step is “to see if we can do better for the animals and better for the taxpayers.”

According to state law, cities and counties must provide certain animal services in unincorporated areas. For example, health and safety code requirements mandate maintenance of a pound system and a rabies control program.

In 1998 DAS began providing services to Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Santee, Poway, San Diego, San Marcos and Escondido.

The latter two opted out in 2003 and began receiving services from the San Diego Humane Society. Poway followed suit two years later.

Since then the remaining six cities have contracted with the county for shelter management, field services such as rescuing injured strays and enforcing animal cruelty and neglect laws, veterinary services and dog licensing, which includes issuing and maintaining records and rabies vaccinations.

To meet its requirements the county operates shelters in Carlsbad, San Diego and Bonita and contracts with other qualified vendors to provide services when necessary.

The current contract, which requires a one-year notice for termination, expires June 30, 2018.

“As part of the county’s continued practice of reviewing services for consolidation, outsourcing, re-engineering and elimination … we routinely examine the governing legislation mandating certain services,” April Heinze, deputy chief administrative officer for the community services group, said.

“Given the approaching expiration of these agreements we have an opportunity to explore alternative service delivery options and to improve the economy and efficiency of those services,” she added.

Since 2013 the county has seen a 20 percent increase in its operating budget, with the most significant cost going to personnel due to retirement contributions, additional staff required to meet customer needs and projected costs for expanding shelter hours to include Sundays, Heinze said.

The budget for this fiscal year is approximately $17.6 million. Of that about $11.5 million comes from the contract cities and unincorporated areas and $3 million is from the county’s general fund.

Another $2.1 million comes from license and shelter fees, which have remained low to avoid negative effects such as discouraging adoptions from shelters.

Gary Weitzman, president of the San Diego Humane Society, was the lone speaker who supported the decision to look at outsourcing.

With multiple locations, two dozen “humane law enforcement officers,” a recovery and rescue group that’s mobilized during times of crisis and diversion programs to keep animals out of shelters, he said the time is “appropriate” for his organization to “assume the work” of DAS “and explore how we can benefit the county with more efficiencies and potentially lower cost.”

“We feel that we would be a very viable option to assume those services in San Diego County,” Weitzman said.

But four other speakers disagreed, including representatives from Service Employees Union International Local 221.

David Garcias, the organization’s president, said outsourcing is “tantamount to getting rid of your public safety.” He said when law enforcement officers call for help they want a trained professional.

“Please don’t jeopardize our public safety,” he said.

“There are some things that should not be for profit and taking care of at-risk animals is certainly one of them,” resident Cynthia Jordan said. “We all pay taxes. I pay a lot of taxes. I would pay even more taxes if that’s what it takes to be able to expect that the homeless animals of San Diego County and the city will be well cared for during their shelter stays.”

“Groups of people have been working together for decades to establish long-term relationships that help to improve the safety and best interests of all of the cats, dogs and other animals that come into the shelter services on a daily basis,” said Adelle Schmitt, president of Dogs Für Days, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization that rescues canines from public shelters.

“There is no replacement for the kinds of relationships that exist between administrators and local rescue organizers and leaders within the rescue community,” she added. “The Humane Society is unable to achieve this level of cooperation because frankly, they don’t have the long history of relationships with the rescue community that the Department of Animal Services does.”

Schmitt said outsourcing is “demoralizing” and “essentially a vote of no confidence to the Department of Animal Services.”

“Not true at all,” Jacob said. “The employees in the department have done an excellent job.”

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, whose District 3 includes Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, agreed.

“Exploring outsourcing is not, by any means, a fault of the department,” she said. “I’m really proud of the services that we’re currently providing. I’m really proud of our staff members.

“My concern is about the sustainability of the program that we’re currently offering,” Gaspar added. “As we’re seeing personnel costs continue to rise … it’s unclear whether we’ll be able to keep the fees low, and if we raise the adoption fees … that could have a significant impact on the ability to adopt more animals out of the shelter system, which I feel quite passionately about because all of my animals have been from the shelter system.

“The increased cost can also threaten the level of service that’s being provided,” Gaspar continued. “So I think it’s a smart business decision to look at the options of outsourcing these services. But I will never be supportive of something that lowers the level of service, the quality of care, the safety component.”

If there is sufficient interest, the county will issue requests for qualifications and proposals and then begin negotiations, keeping supervisors updated throughout the process.

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