County looks at dogcatchers

Sussex County Council juggled the animal control hot potato at the May 10 council meeting, but where that responsibility will come to rest remains to be seen.

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) leaders have voted unanimously to move away from those duties, and return to the society’s original mission.

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) David Small (deputy secretary) and SPCA Director John Caldwell presented council two perspectives on the same situation.

Small gave a bit of history — the Fish and Game Commission (now DNREC’s fish and wildlife) had the duty dating back to the early 1900s. In the 1950s, the state split up game warden and dog warden details, and the Delaware SPCA picked up the contract for the area north of the C&D Canal in 1960.

By 1971, the SPCA was handling all dog warden contracts, although the title changed to animal control agent (more calls for dog control).

Until the mid-1970s, the SPCA was self-funded through license fees. Rabies vaccinations became mandatory at that time, but license fees remained static at $3 until 1999 (increased to $6). The state legislature offered an annual grant-in-aid for 10 years, and then moved SPCA support into the general fund.

“This is a proposal, at this point,” Small said. He said the plan was to give each county the prorated general fund share, currently budgeted for fiscal 2006, beginning July 1, 2006. “At this point, it is envisioned that there wouldn’t be additional dog control funding originating at the state level as of July 1, 2006,” Small stated.

Small said there would obviously be legislation involved and questions to answer regarding enforcement, but DNREC would collect fines and redistribute them (the department would absorb administrative costs).

County Administrator Bob Stickels said it would be impossible for the county to meet the deadline.

According to Small, if this was to be considered at all, the transition period could be extended.

Council President Finley Jones asked just how under-funded the SPCA’s efforts were.

Small said Caldwell could better answer that question, but did note an SPCA letter to the administration voicing concern over its ability to carry out its contractual responsibilities. “I believe that number is about $50,000,” he said.

Small suggested the proposal could be viewed as an opportunity for the county to exercise flexibility within a more local jurisdiction, and that the SPCA might possibly retain interest in continuing to provide rabies vaccinations and other traditional services – just not dog control.

Council Member Lynn Rogers asked why the state was taking this direction, and Small said DNREC was facing interagency challenges regarding competition for funding.

“This just doesn’t seem to be part of our core mission anymore,” he said — DNREC’s top priority issues were air quality, water quality, state parks maintenance and wildlife protection.

“So the bottom line is money,” Rogers returned, and Small agreed that was the case — in part.

According to Stickels, “There isn’t anyone who’s going to be happy with any local government doing what this law says.” He counted 40 subsections in state statute, and noted discounted license fees for spayed or neutered dogs as an example.

“I want to know who’s going to do that inspection,” Stickels said.

He suggested the state had done a very poor job at administering dog control, and “now they have an opportunity to give it to the county, and we’re at their mercy.”

Stickels said the state had asked the county to support a modified funding formula for paramedics two years back, and they’d done that. Despite this year’s tax surplus, he suggested the SPCA still wasn’t receiving adequate funding.

Rogers echoed that, praising the SPCA for a job well done but saying they were getting about one-third what they needed to operate.

And asking them to raise license fees wasn’t necessarily the solution, Rogers said. He made an analogy — raise tipping fees at the dump, and dumping along roadsides invariably increases.

Stickels outlined four options — (1) accept the proposal as presented, (2) accept, but with a longer transition period, (3) reject the proposal or (4) work toward a joint state/county venture.

Council Member Dale Dukes said he was against the proposal, calling it an unfunded mandate, but considered the possibility of some kind of joint venture.

Council Member George Cole said the county had cooperated with the Delaware State Police (DSP) and taking a look at a joint venture would be worthwhile. He suggested the SPCA continue to play a subcontractor role, possibly with some funding assistance from the county, but agreed the society shouldn’t be part of DNREC.

Caldwell stepped to the podium after Small’s presentation. “I can’t bash him, or the state, but one thing that hasn’t been stated tonight is that the Delaware SPCA officially notified the state of Delaware back in March that we do not intend to renew a contract for animal control after fiscal 2006,” Caldwell said.

He said they’d agreed to enter into a contract with DNREC to take the state through to June 30, 2006 — providing it was adequately funded, per their proposal. The SPCA had asked for $876,000 (for New Castle and Sussex Counties)

The society tacked on another $55,000 for a vacated Board of Health position (that worker had been deployed in Sussex County, to augment the three animal control officers patrolling that area.

Whatever funding they receive in fiscal 2006, Caldwell said the SPCA had actually subsidized the state of Delaware to the tune of about $331,000 in the past three years.

“That’s coming out of nonprofit, charitable income,” he said. “That’s totally unfair — I don’t know what else to say.

“The board decided, by giving up this contract, we go back to our true mission — which is cruelty investigation, adoptions, humane education and neutering,” he said.

Caldwell said New Castle, and now Sussex County, had voiced some willingness to enter into a joint venture with the state, but whatever happened, as far as he could report from the board of directors, “after fiscal 2006, we’re done.”