Animal Protection and Control is once again in the headlines since the Commissioners are proposing another dog ordinance. There have been several misstatements and misconceptions I would like to correct. Following is a short history of animal control in the Bitterroot Valley since late 1990’s.
In fall of 2000, the Right to Farm group presented a proposed Ravalli County Dog Ordinance to the three-Commissioner Board (Alan Thompson, Smut Warren and Betty Lund). Ordinance 14 was enacted on November 2, 2000, but covered only dogs at large and vicious dogs.
In December 2000, an Ad Hoc group (Concerned Citizens for Animal Protection and Control) presented a proposed 56-page Animal Protection and Services Ordinance to the Commissioners. This Ad Hoc group, led by Jean Atthowe, had spent several years researching and developing a comprehensive ordinance. It covered an Animal Control Officer (ACO), dog licensing, dogs at large, vicious dogs, humane treatment (cruelty) and impoundment and fines. The Commissioners (Thompson, Lund and Jack Atthowe) did not approve this proposal, deeming it too restrictive for our county. However, they did appoint a nine-member Animal Protection and Control Board (AP&CB), later expanded to 13. Members were interviewed and appointed by the Commissioners. I was elected president of the AP&CB.
The AP&CB, under direction of the Commissioners, spent several years reorganizing and rewriting the proposed ordinance. We enlisted input from the County Attorney, Health Department, Sheriff’s Office, local veterinarians, state officials, and a contracted group of attorneys then reviewing all Ravalli County ordinances to ensure they were not in conflict with state laws. At that time the local judiciary declined to comment, citing a conflict of interest by giving input into a law under which they would render an opinion.
The resulting County Ordinance 16 – Animal Protection and Services Ordinance, was approved and adopted January 29, 2007, by Commissioners Thompson, Greg Chilcott and Howard Lyons (absent). The ordinance required dogs to be licensed. Funds from licensing would be deposited in a designated fund to support a certified Animal Control Officer (ACO) under the Sheriff’s jurisdiction.
From January 2007 to December 2010, the AP&CB worked diligently to support this ordinance. Under the non-profit umbrella of RC&D we sought grants and donations, held raffles, special dog licensing events with door prizes and had a county fair booth with many prizes. We were very fortunate when the valley vet clinics came on board with their support. Their staff sold county dog licenses in conjunction with required rabies shots. This greatly expanded the ordinance’s scope and effectiveness. For this four-year period I volunteered to input all licensing data into the computer tracking program. By fall of 2009, we had collected nearly $40,000. The former commissioners (Chilcott, Kathleen Driscoll, Carlotta Grandstaff, Jim Rockosch and J.R. Iman) allocated an additional $40,000, which allowed us to hire an ACO. A job description was developed and business program for the ACO office to cover logistics, training and equipment purchases.
The ACO position was advertised in the fall of 2010. I felt honored to participate in the review panel. The first panel did not have viable candidates. The job was re-advertised. An excellent candidate was offered the job and came on board January 1, 2011.
After one week of professional ACO training she was actively on the job. As an example of her effectiveness: In February 2011, dog licensing earned $500. By August 2011, ACO presence in the valley doubled revenue to $1,000. The ACO answered all animal calls or concerns, not just dogs at large or vicious dogs. Horses or cattle on the road, mallard ducklings in a sewer drain, bats in a lady’s house, feral cats, suspected cruelty, you name it.
In August 2011, the Commissioners introduced a Reduction-in-Force (RIF) action to lower expenditures in the general fund. Several county positions were affected plus elimination of the Juvenile Detention Center. The ACO position was also included even though its cost came from the designated animal fund, not the general fund. There was still $35,000 in the animal fund. The Sheriff’s Office did not have the manpower to enforce dog licensing. RIF-ing the ACO effectively discontinued dog licensing and the revenue it generated, not to mention the dog safety factor involved with licensing. The Sheriff is now answering only dogs at large or vicious dogs and the most extreme abuse cases.
The tragedy here is that we had a viable animal protection and control program that was bringing in revenue. ACO funds may have needed supplementing in the beginning, but would eventually become self-supporting. Also, different staffing options were being considered by the Deputy Sheriff prior to the RIF.
Now the Commissioners are considering passing another Dog Ordinance that covers only dogs at large and vicious dogs This will be enforced by Sheriff’s deputies who are paid from the general fund. They are not trained animal control specialists. This puts them in serious jeopardy. The taxpayers are not winning here. Neither is animal safety and protection, nor the officers being asked to enforce this ordinance.
Peg Platt, President
Former Animal Protection and Control Board