NEW PORT RICHEY — The city is officially entering the dog-catching business.
The City Council gave final approval Tuesday evening to an ordinance creating New Port Richey's new volunteer animal protection unit. The group will work with New Port Richey police to provide animal control services in the city instead of Pasco County Animal Services. The new unit will begin operating Oct. 1.
"We're really excited," said Sharon McReynolds, owner of Advanced Healthcare Alternatives and head of the volunteer unit. "This has been a lot of work and we are ready to get going."
First up: A big marketing push to tell city residents that all pets must be licensed by a veterinarian and registered with the city. Fee rates for licensing and citations for noncompliance are still being hashed out.
The ordinance establishes the licensing program starting Oct. 1, but there will be a six-month educational grace period before enforcement begins in April 2013.
Council member Bill Phillips called on the new unit to do as much as possible to inform the public on the new licensing laws.
"At the end of the day, I'd like to make sure we've made every effort," he said.
McReynolds said the unit, which has 15 certified volunteers, will put out fliers, place door hangers and hold community meetings to inform the public. Council member Judy DeBella Thomas also suggested sending residents a notice in water bills.
"Our plan is to blanket the market," McReynolds said.
McReynolds and veterinarian Dr. Terry Spencer spearheaded the effort for the volunteer-led program. Fielding complaints from residents about slow response from county Animal Services, the council agreed to pursue the idea, which they believe will be a money-saver as well.
The city is investing $57,000 in startup costs, and expects the program will cost about $20,000 to $30,000 a year. By contrast, the city had been paying Pasco County about $60,000 a year for animal control services.
Implementing the program has not been without controversy, as Spencer, who works for the University of Florida, pulled out from the effort last month. McReynolds said at previous council meetings that Spencer had concerns that the licensing program would not be implemented immediately, and the program initially only deals with dogs, not cats.
Leading up to the final reading of the ordinance Tuesday evening, McReynolds also made several impassioned pleas for the city to speed up planning efforts. She also agreed to a compromise that the handling of cats will be phased into the program after the unit has been established for several months.
Time did run out on a plan to run the unit's operation out of kennels at the New Port Richey Police Department. Construction of the kennels was not completed in time for the Oct. 1 opening and a plan to install a portable kennel was not cost effective, Police Chief James Steffens told the council Tuesday.
Enter SPCA Suncoast, which has offered the city free use of an unused building holding about 16 kennels. The city will clean the structure and do building upgrades to get it ready for the Oct. 1. launch, McReynolds said.
The unit will not intermingle with SPCA operations at 7734 Congress St., and there will be a fence put up between the two buildings, McReynolds said. The unit has agreed to use the site for a minimum of 60 days but no more than 120, according to SPCA interim executive director Jennie Briguglio.