What City & County Managers Need to Know About Animal Control

Five problems and solutions

Animal care and control is often on the public’s radar screen much to the regret of many city and county managers. Although this program makes up a very small percentage of local government budgets, it has often been a challenge for many municipal and county managers and administrators. Elected officials too, may be unfairly criticized by animal control critics.

There are several steps, however, that can be taken by city and county managers to minimize operational problems, contain crises, and contribute to improved program effectiveness.

The following are five areas of concern that should merit more attention.

1. Contracting/partnering for services. There are three aspects of contracting that are frequently problematic:First, boards of directors of non-profit contractors and local governments have too often maintained a mutual arms length relationship by choice. This has resulted in diminished accountability of both parties, limited two-way communication and led to misunderstandings and delays in addressing important issues causing mutual blame.

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The solution lies in developing a partnership in which the contractor’s board of directors as the responsible party on one side and senior local government officials (e.g. the city or county manager or his/her authorized representative) on the client side should have designated responsibilities and have a mechanism to assure on-going communication.
The second aspect of the problem is the failure of the local government client to have a contingency plan at the outset for the both the short and long term sheltering needs of impounded animals should the contractor give notice to discontinue service. A back-up plan is essential.
The third aspect of the problem is divided responsibilities and reduced accountability when services are split between two or more entities and one is a contract provider. The solution lies in carefully constructed clauses in the written agreement that details the duties of each party. This will help to encourage mutual trust and cooperation and prevent misunderstandings.

2. Policy and procedures manual. The absence of a written policy and procedures manual or an outdated one to guide staff in the performance of its duties has often been found to contribute to accusations of inhumane treatment of animals. Such charges are difficult to rebut. Further, they may put your animal services program in the crosshairs of state officials who may seek to investigate if any state laws were violated. If written policies and procedures do not exist, it could also raise questions of liability and bring unfavorable publicity and diminish public support for the program.The answer lies in taking preventive action by having updated and written policies and procedures and requiring each staff person to sign off that he or she has read the manual completely and understands the obligation to comply with its contents. This will help to assure minimal acceptable performance standards and delivery of a humane level of care to the animals.

3. Training. Inadequate or no training has been an on-going problem in some animal control programs, because it has been linked to charges of animal cruelty levied against staff and frequently results in lawsuits being filed by angry animal owners. The cost of providing needed training after a major incident had occurred is more than if it was required initially.All animal control staff needs to undergo training appropriate to job responsibilities. Increasingly, states are now mandating some form of training for animal control personnel. Therefore training funds need to be earmarked in the budget.

4. Review and update your animal ordinances. Review and update your animal ordinances annually, because state laws can and do change and you need to be in compliance. Attempting to solve a major animal problem without benefit of legal authority to do so may be difficult and time consuming. It’s also wise to identify emerging issues (example: dangerous dogs) that may require the need for new animal ordinances. Annually reviewing and amending your animal ordinances if needed, will allow you to be ready to enforce new provisions should the need arise.

5. Auditing/evaluating the program. Evaluating an animal care and control program often leads to unexpected surprises that are expensive to correct. The first problem is when local government officials are too quick to yield to pressure from self-appointed outside critics to evaluate the program before issues and problems have been adequately understood by these officials. Beware, critics may have their own agendas. Animal control officials should be given an opportunity to respond to charges and allegations before further action is contemplated. If a decision is made to undertake a review, give consideration up front on how and by whom the final report will be reviewed.Another concern is where to obtain funding to implement some recommendations to meet new needs and to correct current deficiencies.

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Lastly, officials need to establish a time frame for making changes. When it comes to animal control, the public and animal owners alike often demand corrective action more quickly than it is reasonable to expect. A second problem is the failure of the local government client to define the parameters of the program to be reviewed, particularly identifying questions or issues that local officials want answered. This has sometimes resulted in a work product (report) that cannot easily be implemented, because the consultant is given the discretion to define what is to be reviewed. This has resulted in some cases where findings have produced numerous deficiencies and funds to improve the program were not forthcoming, especially those recommendations carrying hefty price tags.

All too often, the cost of improving the program centers mainly on building a new shelter to replace an old and obsolete one. Whoever conducts the review should be asked to prioritize recommendations, estimate their costs, and be prepared to offer low cost viable alternatives.

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