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Animal control: Federal Way breaks from King County to save money

Federal Way will break from King County to operate its own animal control services.

On Feb. 16, the city council voted 6-to-1, with council member Roger Freeman issuing the dissenting vote, to create an animal control unit within the police department. Federal Way is one of 34 King County cities outside Seattle that contract with the county for animal control. The service includes animal sheltering, licensing and responses to complaints. By summer, Federal Way will offer the same services at a lesser price than King County expects to charge.

"It's very timely, if not overdue," council member Jim Ferrell said.

Due to budget constraints, King County will increase its fee for animal control services after July. Now, contracting cities forfeit animal licensing fees, in exchange for animal control services. Come July, King County will shift to a full-cost recovery model. Licensing fees and other fees for service will be collected.

Service model

A city-operated unit will be more affordable and reliable, deputy police chief Andy Hwang said. Federal Way police will respond to animal complaints. The police department believes it can provide a higher service level than what's offered now, he said.

Sheltering will be offered through The Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County at 2608 Center St. in Tacoma. The shelter will provide services for up to 2,000 companion pets originating from Federal Way, Hwang said. The shelter has a no turn-away policy, said Denise McVicker, Humane Society deputy director. It charges a flat fee of $76 to take in a stray or abandoned pet, she said.

Cost savings opportunity

The city expects to save $146,000 by operating its own animal control unit, Hwang said. If Federal Way were to continue with King County, it would pay about $484,000 annually ($204,000 in licensing fees, based on 2009 data, and another $280,000) for animal control services, Hwang said. Mayor Linda Kochmar said $484,000 is not acceptable and the city has no choice but to start its operation.

Start-up costs for Federal Way's unit will be roughly $300,000, and ongoing costs are estimated at $338,000, Hwang said. Staff is still figuring out where the funds will come from, but within three years, the service is expected to reach a cost neutral state, Hwang said.

The city will hire a full-time animal management coordinator to keep costs minimal. This person will oversee sheltering options and educate the public on the importance of licensing pets. Licensing fees collected will go toward operating the unit. Now, approximately 20 percent of the city's companion pets are licensed, Hwang said.

"If we were simply to increase our licensing by 10 percent and lower our sheltering by 10 percent, we could easily reach a cost neutral program within our community," Hwang said.

Mixed reactions

The city council's decision was met with mixed feelings by audience members at the council meeting. Resident Bob Kellogg applauded the council's action. Responses to animal complaints in Federal Way often take a long time or are non-existent, he said. In 2005, Kellogg and neighbors placed around 12 calls, within a year's time, to King County Animal Care and Control requesting a response to a barking dog in the area. Many times they received a voice recording and no follow-up, Kellogg said.

"We're not getting an efficient, effective operation there (with King County)," Kellogg said. "We need to resolve our problems here."

Volunteers who work at the Kent animal shelter, where King County houses stray pets and offers pet adoptions, told the council they worry the city is rushing into something it does not fully comprehend. Discontinuing services with the county, which has a no-euthanasia goal, in favor of a partnership with the Humane Society will result in higher euthanasia rates, said Bernice Bellamy, a Kent animal shelter volunteer. Placing special needs pets into a permanent home will be more difficult, said Pam Schairbaum, another Kent shelter volunteer.

The Humane Society takes numerous steps to find pets' owners and place adoptable pets into homes, McVicker said. It regularly updates its Web site with photos of lost and adoptable pets, she said. The shelter also operates a 24-hour lost pet recording that lists the pets checked into the shelter within the past day.

Both stray and owner-abandoned cats and dogs are evaluated for adoption, McVicker said. If the animal is a stray, it is first held for 48 hours before adoption is considered. All cats are placed up for adoption, she said. Dogs that pass a behavioral test, showing they are not aggressive, are also placed up for adoption, McVicker said. Unlike at the Kent shelter, dogs that don't pass the test are not placed into foster homes to work on behavioral issues.

"Dogs that don't pass their behavior assessment don't have much of an opportunity," she said.

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