Dog dollars: Off-leash pets cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands dollars, law enforcement thousands of hours
EAGLE — Off-leash dogs cost local law enforcement hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours per year.
Stray animals — mostly dogs at large — account for 50 percent of Eagle County’s animal services calls, said Nathan Lehnert, the county’s animal services field manager.
People are not timid about calling.
During a 90-minute meeting Monday with the Eagle County Commissioners, Lehnert’s phone lit up with almost two dozen calls and messages.
At the other end of the valley, Avon police officers spend a massive amount of time dealing with off-leash dogs, mostly in Nottingham Park. In 2016, Avon officers were in the park 1,150 times patrolling for dogs off leash. They issued 151 warnings for dogs at large, and 13 summons.
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toughest fines in Gypsum
Gypsum takes the county’s most aggressive stance, and has for more than a decade. Get caught with your dog off-leash and you’ll pay:
• $100, first offense.
• $150, second offense.
• $250, third offense.
• $300 is top charge, or you go to court, where you’ll also pay $35 in court costs and have a word with Municipal Judge Terry Quinn.
The stiff fines followed a public outcry about dog owners allowing their dogs to leave waste in parks and other people’s lawns, Gypsum Town Manager Jeff Shroll said. As the snow melts in the spring, Shroll said a few town parks are “filthy.”
Eagle’s fines are also stiff:
• $40, first offense
• $100, second offense
• $250, after that. You can also be found an habitual offender. That’s another $300 each time.
On the other hand, Eagle gave out a dozen attaboy awards to pet owners who had their dogs on a leash.
Barking and Benjamins
Such as most government programs, animal services is all about the Benjamins. Under Colorado law, a county has no legal obligation to provide animal services or a shelter. Eagle County does.
“What level service do we want, and how will we pay for it?” asked County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.
During the past five years you’ve spent:
• 2013: $592,747.91.
• 2014: $648,326.05.
• 2015: $650,143.67.
• 2016: $717,371.33.
• 2017: $657,280.
Most of the county’s animal services calls are in the towns, leaving little time or resources for unincorporated Eagle County, Lehnert said.
The solution, as usual, is not complicated. It’s simply hard.
The county may not be charging the towns enough, the commissioners said, and the towns could be asked to pick up the tab for more staffers. The county’s animal services budget is $690,000 for this year. Running the shelter consumes about half of that money, around $350,000 per year.
Paying for it breaks out like this:
• Eagle County, 85 percent or $592,977.
• Vail, 5.6 percent or $38,475.
• Gypsum, 4.3 percent or $23,040.
• Eagle, 2.9 percent or $20,112.
• Avon, 1.4 percent or $9,875.
• Minturn, .7 percent or $4,770.
• Red Cliff, 0.1 percent or $768.
Much more efficient
Last year the commissioners slashed two people from the county’s six-person animal services staff.
“I can’t explain how much better and more efficient things are,” Lehnert said.
But the cutbacks also mean the animal services staff now has to say no to certain things. In other words, stray animals will probably continue to stray until an animal services officer can get there.
Because they’re so short-staffed, the department is parsing the difference between true emergencies and nuisances such as barking dogs.
“It’s difficult for us to get to a call for something like a dog barking at night,” Lehnert said.
Animal services also now requires citizen incident reports before officers take action. That can discourage complainers, Lehnert said.
“Those reports are public record, and people can learn who’s complaining about them,” Lehnert said.
If there’s an emergency that law enforcement cannot handle, then animal services officers may have to respond the next day, Lehnert explained.
“Because of the staffing shortage, some things won’t get done,” he said.
The animal services staff does not like working this way, but that’s the way things are, at least for now.
They would also like to respond after hours, and spend more time listening to people who are complaining, and those being complained about, Lehnert said.
“The most benefit comes from being proactive,” Lehnert said.
If a county animal services officer has to round up your pet, then it will cost you $30 to impound the animal. Add a $15 per day shelter fee for dogs and $10 for cats. If it’s there for more than a day or so, then it’s getting vaccinated for $20.
Staffing back up
To get the department where Lehnert wants it to be, two more officers are needed — that would be a total of four, plus Lehnert. That would staff the department at the same level as a year ago before the commissioners’ cuts. On the other hand, more officers would bring in more animals, and put more pressure on the shelter, Lehnert said.
The county’s budget process begins this summer, and several departments are expected to ask for more staff.
At the same time, the county’s 2018 budget could take a $1.5 million hit because of a collision between conflicting funding formulas in the state constitution.
At best, next year’s budget may stay even with 2017 funding.
In the meantime, Lehnert said the animal services staff is considering things such as creating dog parks, where Rover could rove off leash and its owner would not be breaking the law.