TAMPA — Hillsborough commissioners told their administrator Wednesday to come up with a strategy for killing fewer dogs and cats at the county's shelter.
The move came a little more than a week after County Administrator Mike Merrill announced a shakeup at the county's Animal Services Department. The changes included the abrupt retirement of the department's director of operations.
At the time, Merrill said he wanted the county to get more aggressive in reducing the number of animals euthanized at the shelter. Wednesday's 6-0 vote, with Commissioner Les Miller absent, formalizes that.
The changes within the department have prompted applause but also protests from some animal activists and members of a panel that advises the county on animal issues. Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who initiated Wednesday's discussion, said he is not advocating for Hillsborough County to adopt a no-kill policy like some other shelters around the country.
But he said he believes Hillsborough can do a better job even as it makes gains in reducing the number of animals killed each year.
Since 2005, the county has reduced the number of animals euthanized at its shelter by 52 percent, to fewer than 14,000 dogs and cats last year. But the county still kills 65 percent of the animals that end up at its shelter.
"To me, that is unacceptable," Hagan said.
Some animals inevitably will still need to be put down because they are sick or dangerous, he added.
As part of the analysis, Merrill and his staff were asked to present the financial implications of a more aggressive approach. Would it require more space as animals are sheltered longer, and more employees to watch them?
"I think it's important to lower the kill rate," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham. "I am concerned about, do we have the space? Do we have the staff?"
Animal Services has experienced sharp financial cuts due to declining tax revenue in recent years. The department no longer traps nuisance feral cats or picks up road kill.
Under the proposal, Merrill said his staff will work closely with the county's volunteer Animal Advisory Committee. That group's meetings will also get broadcast on the county's television station, as the issue is expected to draw strong community interest.
Merrill said he expects to announce a new director for the department in coming days.
In other action, commissioners agreed to give the nonprofit group Mental Health Care Inc. $2.1 million to purchase and renovate a 24-unit apartment building near the University of South Florida.
The building will be converted into living quarters for the chronically homeless, in an effort to stabilize their lives and get them necessary services, such as mental health care. The so-called "housing first" initiative is intended as a pilot program and was championed by Commissioner Sandra Murman and a homelessness task force she helped create.
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.