Yolo County looks to change its animal services

In Yolo County, the sheriff’s department has long been responsible for managing stray animals. Now officials are examining whether an independent agency or nonprofit would be better suited to operate the Woodland shelter and provide animal services in the county of 200,000 people.

Proponents of the change cite a 2012 report by the Animal Protection League that suggested privatizing animal services would “attract a larger donation base and volunteers, and reduce employee costs.” The report also noted that when animal services are placed in law enforcement departments, they can get “lost in competing public safety concerns.”

Davis Mayor Joe Krovoza has advocated for steering animal services out of the sheriff’s department.

“There’s growing recognition that bringing in more outside experts on the modern ways of doing animal services is beneficial,” Krovoza said. “Some pieces are done well by the county while other pieces might be done with a nonprofit group.”

One proposal taking shape calls for a joint powers authority run by the cities of Davis, West Sacramento, Winters and Woodland, along with the county and possibly the University of California, Davis. Under the current system, the cities and UC Davis contract with the sheriff’s department.

The JPA could rely on a nonprofit such as the Yolo County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to operate some of the services.

At the recommendation of County Administrator Patrick Blacklock, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to move forward with a JPA and have staff develop a plan.

Officials with the animal services section of the sheriff’s department, however, don’t think the JPA would be any better.

“We’re doing a professional job,” said Vicky Fletcher, chief animal services officer. “If it’s not broken, why do you want to fix it?”

Despite significant county budget cuts and layoffs during the recession, Fletcher pointed to dramatically reduced euthanasia rates for cats and dogs in the past few years as a testament to her officers’ success. The Yolo County shelter euthanized 11percent of dogs and 21percent of cats in fiscal year 2012-2013, a reduction from 27percent and 68percent respectively in 2009.

The animal services section employs 20 paid staff at its office on East Gibson Road in Woodland. The original shelter, which now houses dogs, was constructed in the 1970s. A separate facility built in 2003 serves cats. The shelter handles 4,500 animals a year, mainly cats and dogs but also farm animals, given the county’s rural nature.

“If it walks, crawls, slithers or flies, we handle it,” Fletcher said.

Dr. Cynthia Delany is the supervising staff veterinarian for animal services and has worked at the shelter for two years. She credits the improvements in euthanasia rates to special events and outreach that have reduced strays and increased adoptions.

“We’ve worked very hard,” Delany said.

Operating animal services under the sheriff has some advantages – Fletcher has redeployed an inmate program, which allows low-risk criminals to clean kennels and perform other support services.

County supervisor Don Saylor said “containing and reducing the costs” is driving the latest push to re-examine the system.

But the most recent study on animal services commissioned jointly by the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and the Yolo County Local Agency Formation Commission indicated that the cost savings of a JPA were lower than originally projected.

“There is a longer return on investment that is very valuable, but not the immediate bang for the buck that some cities were hoping for,” said Christine Crawford, executive officer for Yolo County LAFCO.

The Yolo County SPCA has remained mum about whether it would support a shakeup.

“We don’t have an opinion at this time. We’ll look forward to see what the JPA structure looks like,” said Kim Kinnee, SPCA executive director.

Currently, the SPCA helps the county with outreach, employing two workers at the shelter in Woodland. The SPCA, which does not have its own shelter, runs a thrift store in Davis to raise money for its operations.

Any transition to a JPA would have to be approved by all parties involved. City councils in Davis and West Sacramento are expected to hear the proposal in January. The Woodland City Council voted last week to support such a framework, while the Winters City Council said it wanted more time to review the measure.

Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program, cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

“There’s no magic answer. A JPA is not necessarily cheaper or better in every situation,” she said.