State-run animal control hasn’t gone to the dogs

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DOVER — When legislation shifted Delaware’s animal control services from a county-contractor model to a state-run one, some lawmakers and citizens raised concerns about the cost.

Now, six months later, and eight days after the change went into effect, the director of the Office of Animal Welfare says there is no added cost.

According to director Hetti Brown, the current cost is $3.5 million — the same as under the previous system.

Going forward, it is expected to be the same or potentially a little less, she said.

While Wilmington still is using a contractor, the three counties currently are paying for only half a fiscal year as state control did not begin until Jan. 1. All four entities will pay the state the full sum for the fiscal year starting July 1.

That amount totals about $3.2 million — the exact same as previously paid by the counties and Wilmington to the contractor, First State Animal Center and SPCA in Camden.

The change was enacted in 2015 through the end-of-year budget bill. Signed July 1, the start of a new fiscal year, the bill contained a provision mandating the state take over animal control over the next two years as current contracts expired, restoring the status that was in place before 2010.

The legislation to consolidate the services was sought by the counties, Ms. Brown said, as First State Animal Center and SPCA had become the sole contractor for the counties and Wilmington. With other organizations dropping out of the bidding due to cost and other concerns, a “monopoly” on animal control had unexpectedly developed, Ms. Brown said.

“There’s no other part of the code enforced by a nonprofit in Delaware,” she said.

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Hetti Brown

After First State Animal Center and SPCA sought to end the contracts early, the state was forced to assume the duties sooner than anticipated.

The state currently contracts out to Chester County (Pa.) SPCA, which submitted the lower of two bids in answer to the state’s request for a sheltering partner.

While the organization is based in Pennsylvania, it has facilities in Delaware: The main kennel is in New Castle County, with smaller ones in Kent and Sussex for convenience. Officials anticipate the primary facility, located at 600 South St. in New Castle, will open in about a week.

Officials are working out the exact details as to how pets will be housed temporarily in Kent and Sussex. Currently, private facilities are rented out. So someone looking to hand a pet over outside of New Castle County would have to call animal control services.

Animal cruelty and rabies control, handled by the state, began in September. Overall animal control efforts were launched Jan. 1, with the Office of Animal Welfare quickly receiving a large number of questions from the public — and messages about missing pets.

One dog found on New Year’s Day was home within two hours after a picture was posted on the state’s new lost pets website, https://animalservices.delaware.gov/, Ms. Brown said.

After an animal is picked up, it’s scanned for a microchip and checked for a tag.

“The first priority is to return the animal to the home right then and there,” Ms. Brown said.

Absent those two identifying factors, the animal will be taken to the nearest shelter location. There, Chester County SPCA takes over the care.

After three or five days, depending on if the owner is known, a pet housed in Kent or Sussex can be moved to the full shelter in New Castle County for expanded care and the chance to be adopted.

Of the 23 positions funded for the office — 14 full-time and nine part-time — most have been filled, although the agency has held back on a few to save money, Ms. Brown said.

In a change from prior practices, animal control officers are required to be certified. The officers, many of whom previously worked for First State Animal Shelter and SPCA, now undergo a four-week training course at the Delaware Constable Academy and are certified for cruelty and control.

They work in all three counties and Ms. Brown hopes they can become familiar with citizens — and their pets.

“We want officers to become part of the community in which they serve,” she said.

Animal Welfare is unveiling a new Web page for dog licensing services, which currently are required but used by less than 10 percent of Delawareans with dogs, Ms. Brown said. Those who do not tag their pup can be fined.

“Another incentive is the license is the pet’s ticket home should they become lost,” she said.

Increased licensing promotion could result in an expanded source of revenue for the agency, meaning more of its budget would be paid for by its own efforts.

In addition to the $3.5 million paid by the counties and the state’s largest city over a full year, the Office of Animal Welfare will be supported by state funding. The Division of Public Health, which the office falls under, is allocated $222,000 from the state General Fund for rabies control, unchanged from last year.

The office itself is receiving about $700,000, $600,000 of which goes to operational costs, including $375,000 for salaries. The rest covers animal cruelty. A nearly identical total was earmarked to the agency in the prior fiscal year.

One benefit of the state running animal control is greater control over cost, according to Ms. Brown. The Office of Animal Welfare is in close contact with the counties and Wilmington to create a rate on which the annual charges can be established, a structure Ms. Brown believes was previously lacking.

She is hoping that formula can go into effect for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017.

While First State Animal Center and SPCA did not handle strays aside from canines, the contract with Chester County SPCA covers all animals, Ms. Brown said. The organization will take some of the most common species and can work with rescues to house animals it cannot, including more exotic creatures such as foreign birds or reptiles.

More information on the Office of Animal Welfare and its services is available at dhss.delaware.gov/dhss/dph/oaw/oawhome.html.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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