CLEARWATER — As county government looks for ways to slash its budget, count Commissioner Karen Seel among those worried about the effect it will have on dealing with animals on the loose.
"I am worried about some of our critical services," Seel said at a budget meeting Wednesday, "and one in particular that I'll point toward is animal services."
Commissioners were discussing the county administrator's proposal for cutting $70 million from next year's budget.
A reduction in field enforcement concerns her, Seel said.
"I understand we'll react to a dangerous dog," she said. "But, you know, if we all of a sudden have 15 dangerous dogs at the same time, we're not going to have the field enforcement folks to be out there."
The executive director of the Humane Society of Pinellas also raised the safety issue.
"This is the third year they've been cut," Barbara Snow said. "Each year, it just got worse. This third year, it's going to cut into any possibility of preventing the problems."
County Administrator Robert LaSala's recommendations include an $817,000 cut from the current budget of $4.1 million for Animal Services. That's nearly 20 percent overall, the amount the administrator had asked departments to seek, but to achieve that the field enforcement program would take a 57 percent hit.
Snow said she has asked commissioners to reinstate the wildlife officer position and to consider how important Animal Services is to public safety.
"When you talk about rabies, bites and scratches … animals running wild out there," that's a public safety issue, she said.
Cuts in county services affect the Humane Society and other animal welfare nonprofit groups, too, she said.
"They can't just trust that we'll be able to do it all, because we can't," Snow said. "We're affected by the same economy."
According to the budget proposal, at least one-third of the county's field enforcement positions are to be eliminated. Officers would only respond to high priority calls and only to anonymous calls involving animal cruelty or an imminent threat to public safety. In the administrator's recommendation, the expected result is painted in vivid terms:
"Anticipate more strays in neighborhoods, disease spread, epizootic (animal epidemic) outbreak of the rabies virus, more dead animals on roadways, higher number of bite cases and pet overpopulation," it says.
Greg Andrews, Animal Services operations manager, said the proposal aims to maintain core services for the 25,000 animals that come in yearly. But even there, three positions would be cut: one at the front desk, one in the kennel and one veterinary technician who helps with surgeries.
"Right now, it looks like we'll be able to continue our spaying and neutering," Andrews said. "But if we weren't able to, that would be another blow."
Before the commission meeting ended Wednesday, LaSala responded to Seel's concerns about reducing officers in the field.
"If, for instance, Commissioner Seel believes we should address animal control in different fashion ... then we have to reprioritize against what the staff has done," LaSala said. "This is so severe that I can appreciate that angst."
Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.