By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Animal advocates are rallying behind the Petaluma shelter after the police chief’s budget-cutting plan includes the elimination of both of the city’s animal control officers.
Interim Chief Danny Fish’s recommendation also includes eliminating “most responses to the public” for animal-related calls, such as sick or injured animals, strays and abuse reports.
The cuts, Fish said, would reduce the focus of the animal services division to only care and adoption. Only the highest priority complaints would be handled by police.
The suggestion comes as a possible solution to Fish’s task of cutting 5 percent from his department, which includes police and animal services.
That amount equals $720,000, of which $176,000 of it would come from animal services, mostly by eliminating the jobs of two animal control officers. The remaining $545,000 would come from the police budget, mostly from the freezing of two vacant jobs and the elimination of a temporary officer position.
Several angry animal lovers urged the City Council this week to spare the animal control officers.
“It’s a serious error in judgment,” said Valerie Fausone, a shelter volunteer who took in an abused dog named Boomer last year whose abuser was tracked down by an animal control officer and prosecuted. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail.
Critics of Fish’s plan say that such rescues and prosecutions likely wouldn’t happen without an animal control officer.
Sheri Cardo, the former chairwoman of the city’s animal services committee and ex-director of the Marin Humane Society, said the cuts would mean the shelter budget would be cut 55 percent in the past three years.
That’s “way more than any other department,” she said. “And this is a department responsible or life and death. That really doesn’t seem fair and I do not believe this will be countenanced by our community … Petalumans are not complacent when it comes to animal services.”
Almost a year ago, animal advocates took very public sides when the current shelter director, also in the context of budget reductions, proposed turning the shelter over to a nonprofit he and a couple of paid staff members would operate. The other employees would have been laid off.
The proposal was set aside last year. The city currently has eight full-time animal services employees who handle more than 1,000 animals and 2,000 animal-related calls for service each year.
Shelter manager Jeff Charter didn’t return calls this week seeking more information.
Cutting animal control officers and expecting police officers untrained to handle sick, injured or scared animals is asking for trouble, several residents said.
Animal control officers also are specially trained in animal behavior while police officers are not, although Fish dismissed the idea that his officers couldn’t handle such calls.
Cardo said four dogs were shot by police last year when animal control officers likely could have contained them without killing them.
Fish said his goal is to preserve the “core mission” of the shelter, which he said has been defined by the community as the care of animals, not the enforcement of animal-related laws like licensing and leash laws.
He also is trying to protect staffing at the police department, which has lost 30 positions in the past four years, although no one has actually been laid off in the process.
“These cuts are not easy to make,” Fish said.
He said he was open to suggestions about how to make the cuts. Other department heads also were directed to submit options for trimming 5 percent of their budgets in an effort to cut another $1.6 million from next year’s general fund budget.
City Manager John Brown also has been in talks with Novato officials about Petaluma taking over that city’s animal services, which could become a revenue source for Petaluma.
Brown also said city officials would be receptive to a renewed plan to convert the shelter to nonprofit status.
“This is just a proposal,” he said, adding that a budget workshop likely would be held in April for the community to comment on specific budget cutting proposals.
Staff Writer Lori A. Carter can be reached at 762-7297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.