When it comes to critters, there are few things the county's Animal Services doesn't do.
The headquarters and animal shelter on Oliver Street in Brooksville stay open 38 1/2 hours a week in hopes of connecting would-be pets and owners. Neighbors annoyed by barking dogs or stinking yards can call the animal control officers to investigate. And when an animal meets its end on your property or along the side of the road, a county worker removes it.
But all of those services and more are either on the chopping block or set to be scaled back as the county struggles to bridge a $10.3 million gap for the 2010-11 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
The proposed Animal Services operating budget of roughly $846,000 is a reduction from last year of about $104,000.
The department plans to cut three full-time positions — an animal control officer, a kennel worker and a customer service attendant — for a net savings of roughly $75,000. That would leave 11.65 positions, including four animal control officers and four kennel workers, said Jean Rags, director of the county's Community Services Division.
The department, already struggling to meet demand, would not have the resources or staffing to do what it does now, At last month's budget workshop, Rags rattled off a long list of affected services. Some of the proposals would require the County Commission to repeal animal-related ordinances on the books. The entire budget proposal is still subject to commission review and approval.
"We had to make a decision as to what is our core mission of Animal Services," Rags said.
That mission, Rags said, is to protect the health, safety and welfare of county residents by responding to calls about dangerous domestic animals. Animal adoptions and other services are, by necessity, secondary, Rags said.
"The main thing people need to understand is we're trying to provide the best level of services we can with the resources we have," she said.
To do that, the department is proposing to:
Reduce operating hours: The shelter at 19450 Oliver St. is now open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Under a proposed schedule, the shelter would remain closed on Saturday and instead be open from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. one day a week, said Liana Teague, manager of Animal Services and code enforcement. That would mean a loss of 3.5 hours per week.
Reduce kennel browsing hours: Visitors currently can browse the kennel at almost any time during the hours of operation. With the cuts in kennel staff, that no longer would be possible, Teague said. Instead, browsing would be limited to three days a week. The days have not been selected.
Eliminate the current adoption fee program: Adoption fees include the cost of sterilization, rabies vaccination and county license. The department takes the animal to a veterinarian, where the new owner picks it up.
"What we charge for those services does not cover our costs," Rags said.
Under the proposed changes, the fee would include the cost of the license and a deposit refundable when the new pet owner returns with proof of vaccination and sterilization. The deposit amount has yet to be set, but the change would mean more out-of-pocket costs for customers and a second trip to Animal Services.
On the positive side, Teague said, the new owners would be able to take their pet with them upon adoption.
Eliminate the rebate program for sterilization: The department would stop offering a rebate to county residents who spay or neuter their pets. The rebate is equal to the cost of the surgery, up to $50.
Eliminate elective euthanasia services: The department currently offers a euthanasia service free for licensed animals or $25 for unlicensed animals, which is still cheaper than the service at a vet's office. The service also includes cremation.
Last fiscal year, the department euthanized about 370 animals at owners' requests, Teague said.
No longer pick up and dispose of small dead animals from the roadside or private property: The department would not pick up dead animals from the right of way unless the animal presents a traffic hazard.
"We will let nature take its course," Rags told the commission last month.
The department also would no longer respond to calls from residents to pick up small dead animals from private property.
Stop responding to wildlife calls: The office has historically responded on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis to residents who call to report sick, injured or aggressive wild animals such as opossums and raccoons. Under the proposal, officers would continue to respond to such calls only if the case involved an aggressive animal with possible rabies exposure.
The cost associated with sending officers on wildlife calls makes the current policy prohibitive, and most counties leave those duties to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Rags said.
Animal Services would still respond to nuisance domestic animal calls during business hours and injured, sick or aggressive domestic animals after hours.
Stop responding to calls regarding barking dog: Under an existing ordinance, the department can cite homeowners who allow their dogs to bark to the point of disturbing neighbors. But officers in some cases spend hours investigating a complaint to gather enough evidence, and even then the county ordinance is difficult to enforce, Teague said.
"The total number of cases is very small compared to the amount of time we spend on them," she said.
Cease responding to "pooper scooper" and odor complaints: Under an existing ordinance, pet owners can be cited for failing to clean up after their dogs on public property or in neighborhoods. But officers have to catch an offender in the act, and that's tough, Teague said.
Property owners can be also be cited if their failure to clean up after their animals on their own property results in an offensive odor. It sounds logical, but again it's difficult to enforce. The department would still act if a property is so unsanitary that the conditions could rise to the level of animal abuse, Teague said.
Rags acknowledged concerns that some of the cuts could cause a reduction in the number of animal adoptions. Those adoptions had started to drop when the economy tanked, and the department euthanized more than 4,000 animals last year.
"The taxpayers of the county can't afford to support a growing shelter," she said.
Asked at what point further reductions, beyond those proposed for 2010-11, would compromise safety of animal control officers, kennel workers and the public, Rags replied: "From my standpoint, we're there now."
Commissioners voiced few concerns after Rags' presentation last month. But it's always painful to scale back public services, Commissioner Dave Russell said Friday. Russell said he's hopeful that groups such as the Humane Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can help meet the community's needs.
"There's an opportunity where we can continue to offer the services in more of a public-private situation," Russell said. "I think you're going to see more exploration in that regard in many of the (county's) departments."
The Humane Society of the Nature Coast has had a partnership with the county for years, accepting animals to help find them homes. But the organization is operating beyond capacity already, said executive director Joanne Schoch.
It's a bitter irony that as the economy falters, the number of animals in need of care surges as property owners cry out for tax breaks and the county's revenue plummets, Schoch said.
"I realize the problems the county is facing with budget, but I do think there's a point where the public has to look at it as, 'You get what you pay for,' " she said. "The public has to decide what's important to them."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.