Paying More for Humane Society Services

Washtenaw County OKs New Contract for Animal Control

In a meeting that stretched past midnight, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners took a significant vote on July 12.

I’m not talking about their decision to put an 8-year, 1-mill tax proposal on the Nov. 7 ballot for public safety and mental health services — though yes, that’s significant and controversial, reflected by a long debate, several amendments and the board’s final 5–4 split.

Screenshot for the Humane Society of Huron Valley website.

No, the vote I’m referring to got scant mention during the meeting. What’s the outcome? The board approved a deal that significantly increases the amount paid to the Humane Society of Huron Valley over the next few years for animal control services.

The county’s dealings with HSHV at times have been deeply contentious. When the contract was previously negotiated during a months-long process in 2011 and 2012, HSHV supporters protested outside the board meetings on Main Street and spoke passionately — sometimes tearfully — during public commentary. Commissioners reported getting death threats and extra security was brought in during their sessions.

This time, the process has been far quieter and, presumably, much smoother.

Often, that’s a good thing — and I suspect from the board’s perspective, it’s a welcome relief, too. Protests can indicate that a process has gone off the rails.

But in this case, the rails were mostly located in meetings between the county’s negotiating team and HSHV officials. The general public didn’t have enough information to weigh in one way or another until an item appeared on the July 12 agenda.

What’s at stake? Increases of public dollars to HSHV, with an annual payment reaching $845,000 by 2020. Some of that amount is expected to be paid by other municipalities, including Ann Arbor. It compares to a base of $500,000 that was in place from 2013 through 2016.

HSHV officials have previously stated that the true cost of providing animal control services to the county exceeds $1.6 million annually, and that Humane Society donors have essentially been subsidizing that work.

Regardless of your view, I’d argue that this allocation of public funds deserves a better airing. There’s a legitimate debate to be had over how animal control should be funded, and whether those public dollars should be used for other purposes — the financially strapped community mental health program, for example. Or, conversely, whether HSHV should get even more from local governments. I’ve heard heated arguments on both sides.

One commissioner has even floated the idea of a countywide millage to pay for HSHV services.

This debate didn’t happen during the current negotiations, however, and the window has closed for now. The HSHV board approved the contract on July 10, followed by county board approval on July 12.

This report looks at the details of that new deal. But first, a bit of background.

State Mandates And Historical Context

In Michigan, the state’s Dog Law of 1919 mandates that counties provide certain animal control services. The original law is admittedly archaic. It specified that under some circumstances — if a dog is rabid, for example — the sheriff has authority to shoot it. Obviously, court cases over time have softened the law and expanded the range of mandated services.

For nearly three decades, Washtenaw County has contracted with HSHV for an even wider range of animal control services. When the contract was previously negotiated in 2011–2012, that scope was debated during a series of public meetings.

HSHV supporters outside a Washtenaw County board meeting in 2012.

At the time, HSHV compiled a document outlining legal requirements for county animal impounds. The document also listed annual expenses for HSHV to provide those services, totaling $1.6 million. The largest expense — $1.188 million — was for housing and veterinary care.

Annual contracts with HSHV weren’t the only financial connection. In 2007 the county issued $6.5 million in bonds to finance construction of the HSHV’s new shelter, which opened in 2010. The county also kicked in a $1 million contribution to the HSHV construction fund from its capital reserves. The bonds were repaid over a seven-year period by the county, with funds supplied by HSHV. The bonds were sold in August 2008, with the final payment made in 2015.

When the bonds were issued in 2007, the county was paying HSHV $200,000 annually to meet its state-mandated requirements for animal control. The county increased that amount by $100,000 each year until it reached $500,000 by 2010.

When the contract was set to be renegotiated in 2011–12, the county had a new administrator — Verna McDaniel, who was promoted in 2010 to replace the retiring Bob Guenzel. There were several new faces on the board of commissioners as well.

Chart from a 2017 Washtenaw County staff memo.

The economic climate had changed too. In 2011 and 2012, the county was still struggling from the financial hit caused by the recession. In fact, some commissioners argued that the county should cut funding for HSHV by as much as half. That proposal drew immediate outcry from HSHV supporters, who lobbied hard for additional funds.

The county ultimately agreed to pay HSHV $415,000 in 2012. As part of that agreement, an effort began to develop a new policy for animal control services.

Subsequently, the county board raised the payments to $460,000 annually under a four-year contract from 2013 through 2016, plus adjustments based on changes in the county’s taxable value. Other municipalities paid another $200,000 or so in additional funds. (The contract called for a base of $500,000 from both the county and other units of local government.)

For anyone interested in more of this gnarly history, here are a few Ann Arbor Chronicle articles that give additional detail and context: “Animal Issue Dominates County Budget Talks” (Nov. 7, 2011); “Revenue Options Eyed for Animal Control” (Aug. 4, 2012); “Task Force: Negotiate with Humane Society” (Sept. 16, 2012); “County Floats Contract with Humane Society” (Nov. 5, 2012); and “$500K Annually for Humane Society OK’d for 4 Years” (Nov. 15, 2012).

Fast Forward to February 2017: Countywide Millage?

This year, the issue of contract negotiations with HSHV was brought up at the county board’s Feb. 2, 2017 working session. It wasn’t on the agenda, however, and no materials were provided online to indicate that animal control issues might be discussed. Nor was the issue recorded in the Feb. 2 meeting minutes. (I stumbled across it a few days ago, on my quest to figure out whether there’d been any public discussion of this topic.)

County administrator Greg Dill.

The working session focused on a set of “deliverables” that current county administrator Greg Dill was putting together for 2017 — essentially a task list for county staff. If you happened to attend the meeting or watch online, you’d have seen that animal control was among the categories he covered.

Dill highlighted the animal control category more than midway through the Feb. 2 session, and until that point no commissioner had mentioned it. Dill raised the issue as an example of how he and his staff are doing a better job of communicating externally — in this case, communicating better with the HSHV.

Dill noted that since the contract ended in December 2016, the county was paying a month-to-month rate of $61,000 while they continued to negotiate a new deal. When Commissioner Conan Smith pointed out that this was roughly a 60% premium on the previous annual rate, Dill said he hoped to bring forward a recommendation for a new contract soon.

Dill added that it was important not to have a substantial increase for animal control funding, because the county has so many other needs.

Smith expressed interest in changing the funding model for animal control in the future. He suggested working “hand-in-glove with the Humane Society on a countywide millage to give them the operating support that they need.” The county could enlist the HSHV’s “enormous infrastructure of citizen volunteers” to support a millage campaign, he said.

“It’s a conversation we should have over the next contract period, to create a permanent solution to this problem,” Smith added.

Some Details Made Public in March

Nearly two months later at the county board’s March 29, 2017 meeting, Dill’s set of “deliverables” for 2017 was on the agenda for board approval. “Animal Control” was among the 17 items in that list — but again, it wasn’t pulled out as a separate agenda item.

The Animal Control section identified three options that the county could pursue to “provide the mandated services of holding stray dogs.” Those options were:

1. Continue to negotiate with HSHV to reach mutually agreeable terms for a new contract. (The deliverables document noted that the county’s 2017 budget for animal control is $496,277 or $41,356.41 monthly. HSHV was requesting $874,000 or $72,900 monthly — a difference of $377,723 annually.)

2. Identify an alternative vendor, such as the Michigan Humane Society or Jackson County, to fulfill the county’s legal obligations.

3. Take back responsibility for mandated animal control services under the Sheriff’s Office supervision. (The document noted a drawback to this option: The county doesn’t currently have the infrastructure or expertise in place to handle the work.)

Commissioners discussed other items in the deliverables document and made some amendments, but did not mention the issue of animal control. The board unanimously approved the document.

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

Later during the March 29 meeting, a related item came up that also wasn’t on the board’s published agenda — you might sense a theme here. It was introduced during the last 10 minutes of the meeting by Conan Smith as an “Item for Current/Future Discussion.”

Smith noted that the county administration had been engaged for several months with HSHV in a “fairly interesting and in-depth conversation” about the new contract. He said his understanding was that discussions had reached a point where the county needed to “get serious.”

Smith then made a motion to appoint a county negotiating team, consisting of the county administrator, corporation counsel (Curt Hedger) and board chair (Andy LaBarre). The goal would be to bring back a contract for approval by the full board of commissioners.

There was no discussion on Smith’s proposal, and it passed unanimously at that March 29 meeting.

What’s In The New Contract?

Months passed. The new contract finally showed up on the county board’s July 12 agenda, fast-tracked with both initial and final approval. (Typically, an initial vote is taken at one meeting, then items come back for a final vote at the board’s next session two weeks later. During the summer, the board meets only once a month.)

Here’s a link to the staff memo and HSHV contract.

The staff memo notes that the previous contract had been extended on a month-to-month basis through June 2017 at a monthly rate of $61,000 while the county administration, the board’s senior leadership team and the sheriff negotiated a new multi-year agreement with HSHV. (This negotiating team was apparently expanded from the members that the county board approved on March 29.)

The new contract had been approved by the HSHV board on July 10, two days before the county board’s meeting. It sets the following rates:

  • 2017: $800,000 annually, pro-rated from July 1, 2017 through Dec. 31 at a monthly rate of $66,667
  • 2018: $815,000 annually ($67,917.00 per month)
  • 2019: $830,000 annually ($69,167.00 per month)
  • 2020: $845,000 annually ($70, 417.00 per month)

A portion of those funds will be collected from other municipalities. According to the staff memo, the following entities currently contribute to funding for animal control: Ann Arbor ($135,570); Pittsfield Township ($18,000); Superior Township ($10,000) and Ypsilanti Township ($30,000).

These amounts could change, depending on actions taken by officials in those jurisdictions. For example, last year the city of Ypsilanti stopped payments to HSHV. It previously paid $10,000 annually.

In the new contract, the county retains responsibility for collecting animal control funding from other municipalities.

The contract has a termination clause, allowing either party to terminate the contract by giving the other party six months written notice of its intent to terminate.

The staff memo accompanying the new contract leaves open the possibility of handling animal control services in a different way after 2020. From the memo:

Approving the proposed contract will give the County the assurance that animal control services will be competently handled over the life of the contract. This gives the County and its decision-makers time to evaluate how these services should most appropriately be handled in the future. Such options to be considered might include providing the service in-house with County employees at an existing retrofitted or newly constructed County facility, issuing an RFP to have an outside group bid on providing these services to the County at an existing retrofitted or newly constructed County facility, or remaining in a contractual relationship with HSHV to provide these services.

On July 12, the item passed unanimously at the board’s Ways & Means Committee meeting, where resolutions are given initial approval. The only comment was from Andy LaBarre, the board’s chair, who thanked Dill and Hedger for their work on the contract — a sentiment echoed by Ways & Means chair Felicia Brabec.

That same night during the board meeting, commissioners took a final vote to approve the contract. Though he had voted to give it initial approval, Conan Smith dissented on the final vote — without comment.

Looking Ahead to 2020

The county administration has explicitly floated the idea of possibly changing its approach to animal control services. I’ve heard that some commissioners are interested in exploring what it might entail for the county to run its own operation, focusing on only state-mandated animal control services.

And at least one commissioner — Conan Smith — wants to discuss a possible countywide millage for HSHV.

I hope we see a stronger public process on this topic well before the end of the current contract with HSHV in 2020. Setting aside a board working session would be one obvious way to include the public in the discussion. Providing more details in meeting minutes and agendas would help, too.

The county administration is also working on a plan to improve community engagement, especially via its website and social media. I’m eager to see what comes of that.

I realize that the county faces a long list of critical issues, and perhaps the board just didn’t see the HSHV contract as a priority for public discussion. I suspect the community might have a different view.

If you’re interested in contacting your county commissioner for this or any other reason, you’ll find their contact information here.

[Note after publication: In this report I incorrectly stated that the HSHV previously had responsibility for collecting animal control revenues from other municipalities. In fact, the county was in charge of that during the previous contract and retains responsibility for it now as well. This report has been updated to correct that inaccuracy.]