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‘Focus group’ forms to address animal services

By Staff | Apr 9, 2011

Charlene Campbell doesn’t have an issue with the job Lee County Animal Services is doing in Cape Coral, she just feels the city could get more bang for its buck — and find a greater sense of community — if it handled its own animal control operations instead of farming the service out.
Campbell, along with a group of like- minded citizens, is working to make it happen.
Described as being in the planning stages, Campbell said the goal is to create a full-service animal shelter that offers all the components provided by Lee County through an interlocal agreement with the city for fiscal year 2011 – 12.
“Our point is not the bash the county, but we feel it’s not working for us,” Campbell said of the arrangement between the two governing bodies. “We need to do what’s best for our pets, and we need to involve our citizens and we need to educate our citizens.”
Cape Coral and Lee County’s interlocal agreement calls for a year of stray animal control service provided by the county at a price tag of $820,494.
The county provides four animal control officers for the city over three shifts; this “enforcement” portion of the agreement breaks down to roughly $398,000 of the total contract, according to LCAS Director Donna Ward.
The “sheltering” portion of the agreement comes to just over $422,000, Ward said, and the county receives 1,700 animals from the city, annually.
Campbell thinks the city could save at least $100,000 annually on operating costs, as her early calculations have found that is would take $700,000 to run the proposed facility each year.
Start up costs are not yet clear, she said, but the goal would be to offer all the services that Lee County provides, including low-cost veterinary services, trap neuter and release programs, fostering and adoption services, as well licensing and enforcement operations.

Educational components would also be key, she said, to involve the community and help to deter the number of stray animals in the city.
“We want to embrace the community … education is so important,” she said.
Director of Animal Services since 2008, Donna Ward said her department has an annual operating budget of $3.8 million.
When Ward came on board animal services was taking in roughly 16,000 animal a year, but that number has dropped to around 10,000, due mostly to education and TNR programs, Ward said.
LCAS has similar interlocal agreements with other communities throughout Lee County, but Ward said Cape Coral is the only city that questions the fees and level of service regularly.
She warns that the sheltering portion of Campbell’s vision will be the most tricky, as costs for opening and maintaining such a facility would require not only a significant amount of start up capital but a host of regulatory compliance designations.
If the city takes in 1,700 animals a year, then Ward said it would cost about $700,000 to operate the shelter, a figure that does not include enforcement. Ward didn’t speculate on the start up costs for all of the services.
“I’ve had other agencies and city officials say they probably could not duplicate our services for the fees we’re charging,” she added.
Mayor John Sullivan was one of 40 or so people who attended a a “focus group” session put together by Campbell to help piece together the overall picture of what it would take for Cape Coral to handle its own animal control.
Sullivan said he feels it’s something the citizens truly want, and he doesn’t believe the city is being serviced properly by Lee County.
A public-private partnership could help to ensure the city gets more for its money, Sullivan said, adding that he’s fielded complaints from residents who are unhappy with the county’s level of service.
“There’s a lag picking up animals … there’s situations where dogs have been out of control, disturbing the neighborhood and they (the county) don’t appear to be anxious to step in and tag these people,” Sullivan said.
Ward said her department has been able to meet all response times without a problem, and that additional staff is not needed at this time.
Additional staffing can be arranged, she said, as long as the city was willing to pay the cost for added enforcement.
Councilmember Pete Brandt, who also attended Campbell’s focus group session, said he believes Campbell’s proposal, in its early stages, might benefit the city.
Start up costs are a concern, he said, but the economic downturn could benefit the city as far constructing a shelter is concerned, giving them the opportunity to build at cost.
Like Sullivan, Brandt thinks a public-private partnership would be key in making Campbell’s proposal come to fruition.
“If we can do the same job for less money, or do the job better for the same amount of money, I’m all for it,” he said.
Another focus group is set up for roughly three weeks from now, according to Campbell, who said this process needs to have as much citizen input as possible.
Campbell will give her proposal over to city staff for review in the near future, she said, which will then bring the full proposal before city council if it proves viable.
Until then, Campbell and crew are working on bringing together that proposal, nailing down start up costs, location and funding.
Campbell asserts the issue is not whether Lee County is short changing the city, but instead whether can the city pull itself up by the bootstraps and take on the responsibility itself.
“I firmly believe Lee County is doing the best they can do, but their location is not advantageous to us,” she said. “We can do more for our money, have more involvement, and have a better pet friendly, pet educated community.”