Animal care politics bite the county’s hand

By Bob Roegner, Inside Politics

There are few issues that spark the public’s passion more than how animals are treated.

The outrage at alleged mistreatment is immediate, forceful and shared by pet owners and non-owners alike. And yet this topic has exploded both politically and financially in the laps of King County government leaders in an unexpected way.

Several years ago, King County suburban cities reached agreement with the county to take over all animal services county-wide. The cities were only too happy to get out of a business that was both expensive and politically volatile.

Over the past couple of decades, the main county shelter in Kent, which is more than 30 years old, and a smaller one in Bellevue, have been forced to stretch their limited resources further as the county experienced years of budget cuts. Last September, a citizens committee issued a report critical of the shelters and presented more than 40 recommendations for improvement. Shelter staff have been working to implement these recommendations.

But during the winter budget process, county council members Dow Constantine (D-Pos. 8) and Julia Patterson (D-Pos. 5) successfully urged their colleagues to support establishing a “no kill” policy even though euthanasia of only sick animals has always been a shelter priority.

A “no kill” policy means long-term investment in new or expanded buildings, more staff and a growing animal population. Many animals aren’t adoptable because they’re too big, too small, too old or just no longer “cute.” The longer they stay in facilities meant for short-term care, the more likely they are to eventually become sick and be euthanized. The policy would also encourage people who no longer want or can afford their animal to take them to the county, further contributing to the long-term population problems.

The council hired nationally known “no kill” advocate Nathan Winograd to issue a report on what it would take to implement the policy. Winograd’s hiring effectively raised the political stakes and the visibility of the issue. There were voices of caution about what the taxpayer costs might be, but they were drowned out as negative and uncooperative.

While some of Winograd’s report mirrored the previous citizens’ report, its incendiary and accusatory language toward County Executive Ron Sims and his staff set off a fire storm. Some council members, wanting to be on the “right” side of any allegations of animal mistreatment, fanned the flames with their own rhetoric, further poisoning the environment against a rational dialogue.

Suddenly, Winograd became the issue as Sims, his staff and shelter volunteers questioned his documentation and accuracy. Many others felt Winograd’s advocacy of a “no kill” policy overshadowed any consultant objectivity. As all of this unfolded publicly over the past several weeks, a bigger issue was being discussed behind the scenes.

With Winograd’s report raising animal issues to a high-profile level, some county council members were starting to worry that the solutions — new facilities, more shelter staff and more medical services — were going to cost millions of taxpayer dollars. The county budget director then added fiscal reality to political apprehension when he announced the county was facing a $20 million shortfall this year and a $60 million shortfall next year, and wants 8 percent cuts across the board.

Council members feared they may be forced to choose between dogs and sheriff’s deputies, or cats and services to the disabled or the elderly. The political options were being diminished. Others felt they had been led into a political corner by Constantine and Patterson or their advisors.

Patterson, Constantine and Sims quickly called a truce, came up with $965,000 in short-term funding and named a committee to develop a master plan and report back in four months. They wanted this issue off the front page.

There are few long-term options. One council member has raised the issue that suburban cities contracting with the county pay more. Others are considering contracting out the whole program, not because it would be cheaper, although it could be made to appear so, but because this is too big of a political headache when county elections are just around the corner.

The only people happy about this situation are those that want to increase funding for animals and those that want to run for the council or the executive’s office. Watch this issue in the fall.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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