Commissioners speak out on humane society funding

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Special to the

Opelika Observer

 

The six members of the Lee County Commission are jointly submitting this column to area newspapers to address the current issue of stray animal control in Lee County.

We write this to ensure our citizens understand this issue fully and to correct a number of misrepresentations that have been circulating over the past few weeks.

We thought this method of communication would be more constructive than engaging in a series of individual conversations, phone calls, emails, etc. that could be misconstrued or repeated erroneously. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through this situation.

A recent column published in the “Opelika-Auburn News,” written by the executive director of the Lee County Humane Society, stated that the Lee County Commission decided to “de-fund” the Humane Society this year.  Our interpretation of that action differs significantly, and a more complete discussion follows.

Since at least 1976, Lee County, Auburn and Opelika have met their statutory obligations regarding stray animals by paying the Lee County Humane Society to meet that need.  In the last ten years, our funding to the Lee County Humane Society has almost doubled. Lee County began signing an actual written contract for those services with LCHS annually six or seven years ago.

Our annual contract with LCHS for boarding and potential euthanasia of stray animals expired Sept. 30, as it does every year. We appropriate funds to, and sign contracts for services with, more than 20 outside agencies annually.

The Humane Society is the third largest contract appropriation we make, exceeded only by those to the EAMC ambulance service and the Lee-Russell Council of Governments, two other partners that help us meet our core responsibilities.

Notably, we appropriate more to the Humane Society each year than we do to the Lee County Health Department.

The County Commission’s primary responsibility is to allocate limited resources to growing needs across a wide array of public services. Each summer, during our budget preparation process, county departments and outside agencies submit requests for funding for the coming year, which are considered by the County Commission during several budget work-sessions.

The Commission was prepared to fund the Humane Society at the same level as the previous year, for the same level of service, which is what we did with most of our outside agencies this year.

When the Humane Society initially submitted their budget request this year, they requested a 30 percent increase over last year’s funding but subsequently reduced that to a 20 percent increase.  No county department, and certainly no outside agency, received an increase that substantial.  Sheriff Jay Jones asked for funding for additional deputies so he could ensure a School Resource Officer presence at each county school, but we had to decline his request.

The justifications LCHS provided for their requested increase included (as taken from material they provided) items like: “out of state transport of animals” for adoption;  “send management staff to national trainings;” remodeling and land improvements; “health insurance benefits for full-time staff;” staff retention; salary increases; “part-time veterinarian and veterinary technician to operate the spay/neuter clinic;” and “a complete overhaul of the organization.”

In addition, the Humane Society presented two new contracts, an annual one or a transition one, both with reduced services and reduced protections for the county. Those new contracts were first presented to us on the last day of the fiscal year, the last day the budget could be adopted. When asked during the County Commission meeting that night if those new terms were negotiable, the Executive Director and Board President both replied “No.”

The Commission members were asked if anyone supported the requested increase, and no one did.  The Humane Society was not interested in providing the same services at level funding for the coming year, so the Commission shifted those funds to our Environmental Services Department, to be used to address our stray animal obligations in other ways.

According to the Humane Society, the three governments collectively are responsible for the impoundment of more than 5,000 stray animals each year. Collectively, the three governments provide 54 percent of LCHS’s annual funding. This past summer, for the first time, all of our animal control officers were told not to bring animals there until further notice, that they were “full.”

That is the first time in our collective memory that our officers were turned away from the Humane Society, leaving us without the ability to comply with Alabama law.

The Code of Alabama, §3-7A-7, requires each county to provide a suitable county pound for the impoundment of dogs, cats (and ferrets!) running at large. It also provides for notice of the pickup to the owner of the animal, if known.

Municipalities with populations over 5,000 are also required to maintain a pound or contribute their pro rata share to the staffing and upkeep of the county pound.

Chapter 7A concerns the elimination and prevention of rabies. Code of Alabama §3-7A-8 says that animals which have been impounded, after notice to the owner, if known, may be humanely destroyed when not claimed by the owner within seven days.

Nothing in that law requires that these animals be euthanized. Continued housing, adoption, or other disposition of these animals beyond the statutory minimum of seven days becomes a social and financial issue.

No one on this Commission wants to see these animals destroyed, but we also have an obligation to our constituents to use our limited financial resources, your tax dollars, in a fiscally prudent manner.

Compassion, however well intended, must be tempered by practical and financial realities.  None of us want to euthanize stray animals, but we simply do not have the financial resources to subsidize placement or long-term housing and care for that many animals per year.

The Humane Society’s stated mission of “animal rescue” is commendable, but it exceeds our financial ability to support and is now preventing us from meeting our statutory obligations.

We have a responsibility to our citizens to explore other options when presented with an ultimatum of more money for less services.

We are now exploring several possible solutions to meet our requirement to impound strays, including how other counties fulfill this responsibility without the services of a humane society. We continue to receive helpful information from both the public and private sectors that we are using to determine our most viable options.

Currently, if our animal control officers encounter a stray animal, they first check for imbedded microchips that may reveal the owner’s identity so the animal may be returned.

If the owner is unidentified, we are currently utilizing multiple, licensed veterinarians to address our statutory legal obligations.

All animals are being tracked by the Environmental Services Dept. by date, location and participating facility, along with a photograph of the animal, in the event that a citizen calls about a missing animal. Any resident seeking a lost animal should contact Lee County Animal Control at 334-737-7013, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. CST.

Nuisance or cruelty cases should be reported to the County Sheriff’s Office.

Thank you for your time and attention to all of the facets of this important issue.

We appreciate the opportunity to serve the citizens of Lee County.

Judge Bill English, Chairman

Commissioner Sheila Eckman, District 1

Commissioner Johnny Lawrence, District 2

Commissioner Gary Long, District 3

Commissioner Robert Ham, District 4

Commissioner John Andrew Harris, District 5

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