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Animal shelters in King County may go private under proposal

King County could turn over the animal-sheltering business to a private agency, under a proposal that county staff presented Monday to the King County Metropolitan Council.

A critical report by a citizens advisory committee last October called King County’s shelter conditions “deplorable.” Another report in March by consultant Nathan Winograd said that “the county has failed for more than a decade to take the necessary steps to reform the shelters.”

Council members Dow Constantine, Julia Patterson, Reagan Dunn and Larry Phillips said they favored an option for a private agency to run the shelters.

The options for the county to continue managing its shelters don’t appear to be many. The county could either keep operations the same — with increased funding and staffing — or reorganize the current model, with several departments taking on specific duties.

The council took no formal action at the briefing, but asked county staff to further study what it would take to bring another organization to run the two county shelters in Kent and Bellevue.

No timeline has been set for a council vote on such a proposal; the council will conduct a public hearing first.

“This is not a budget decision or a policy change,” Constantine said. “This is a moral issue that we are responsible for the animals and we need to succeed for the animals.”

Who would do the job?

The Seattle Humane Society looms as a potential partner to provide shelter services. The Humane Society is a private, nonprofit animal-welfare group that provides adoption, veterinary and other services at a shelter in Bellevue.

“The county is in trouble because the animals are not getting what they need,” said Brenda Barnette, chief executive officer of the Seattle Humane Society. “We’re willing to do anything we can to help out.”

The Humane Society contracts to handle animals from the cities of Renton (which has its own animal-control officers) and Medina.

If the council agrees to partner with a private agency, it could take as long as a year before services are transferred, said Marilyn Cope, council policy staff member.

Barnette said she and Humane Society board members met with King County Executive Ron Sims two weeks ago to talk about a potential partnership. Barnette said she also has had unofficial meetings with individual council members.

“When communities start looking at services, they find out privatizing does allow for more efficiency and others can do the services more economically,” Barnette said.

Sims has recommended the county care for stray animals through a holding period, while a community partner would provide longer-term care and adoption services, said Jim Lopez, deputy chief of staff to Sims.

King County Council member Julia Patterson said she favors switching animal services to a private agency because it would cost less money than if the county remained in the animal-sheltering business.

Estimates show it would cost the county about $8.3 million per year to continue operating the shelters as the sole entity, and would require 76 employees. Having another entity operate the shelter system would cost the county about $5.7 million per year and would require only 27 employees.

Patterson also wants cities that contract with the county for animal services to pay a higher share of the costs.

If a private agency took over the shelters, the county would still provide animal-control officers, issue pet licenses, inspect and license pet shops and kennels and investigate animal cruelty.

In 2007, county animal services handled 12,364 animals, received 15,705 calls and issued 130,925 licenses.

King County provides animal-control and shelter services to unincorporated areas and 34 cities within the county. The city of Seattle has its own animal control officers and operates an animal shelter.

In May, the county council approved $965,000 in additional funding this year for immediate upgrades to the county animal shelters in Kent and Bellevue. That money helped fund new cat cages, new dog runs, an increase in shelter staffing, additional veterinary care, new cages for the animal control trucks and oversight of shelter operations by the King County Auditor’s Office.

Kim Sgro, co-founder of King County Animal Care and Control (KCACC) Exposed, said at a protest rally against the shelters Monday outside of Seattle City Hall, that poor management remains a problem with the shelters. The group favors a private agency taking over the shelters.

“They do not have an adequate adoption program or foster care and they are not able to keep disease out,” Srgo said. “The system can’t be fixed. The shelters need to go to those who can get the job done.”

To view the task force report on animal services, go to www.kingcounty.gov/council/.

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