Garfield County animal control on the budget chopping block, as sheriff looks to cut over $1 million
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario says he didn’t have to look far when he was asked to cut 5% from his 2021 budget due to declining county revenues. But that didn’t make the decision to put the county’s animal control program on the chopping block any easier.
“I’m the elected official, so the difficult decisions are on me,” Vallario said. “I think the public understands that, as sheriff, there are certain statutory things that I have to do.”
That includes county law enforcement, criminal investigation and running the county jail.
It doesn’t include the non-mandatory service of having a team of animal control officers responding to stray animal calls and reuniting pets with their families, or transporting the animals to one of two shelters on either side of the county.
As the one who worked to renew the animal control program in 2004 after it had been previously eliminated before his election in 2002, “believe me, I didn’t make the decision lightly,” Vallario said.
During county budget hearings Tuesday, County Commissioner Mike Samson offered that there still may be an opportunity to at least partially fund the program next year through grants and other available monies as a way to phase the program out of the county’s coffers.
Beyond that, another organization or private entity, or perhaps a public-private partnership of some sort, would be needed if animal control efforts in the unincorporated parts of the county are to continue, commissioners agreed.
Animal control makes up roughly $500,000 of the sheriff’s $20 million budget. Overall, Vallario said he has trimmed $1.04 million from his budget for next year, including the elimination of several positions through attrition and early retirement.
Some current animal control personnel would be reassigned within the sheriff’s office, he said.
County commissioners this year directed department heads and their fellow elected officials to cut their budgets for 2021 by 5%.
The county is looking at a $5.6 million reduction in overall spending, including $2.5 million in personnel costs — mostly through attrition, an early retirement option that was offered up earlier this year, and leaving currently vacant positions unfilled.
The county expects to receive $91.3 million in revenues in 2021. That represents a decrease of about $10.4 million from this year — mostly due to ongoing declines in property tax revenues from oil and gas operations.
Animal control utilizes two shelters in the county for impounding domestic animals, including Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE) next to the CMC Spring Valley campus, and the Rifle Animal Shelter.
From the total animal control budget, about $100,000 goes to the shelters on a per-animal rate for boarding. The county also supports the shelters through other grant money.
Vallario said the vast majority of the 2,400 calls the Sheriff’s Office has responded to this past year involved domestic animals or livestock; though the county will occasionally respond to wild animal calls. Going forward, those types of calls would be handled by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and, in the case livestock, the state brand inspector, he said.
“If a horse is running down the interstate, we would respond because that’s a public safety issue,” Vallario said. “We’ll also still respond in the case of vicious dogs and dog bites, because those are criminal violations.”
What won’t be provided any longer are the stray pet pick-ups, and the various spay/neuter clinics and feral cat neutering programs that the county has routinely done, he said.
Most of the county’s municipalities have their own animal control programs within the local police departments to deal with stray pets within town and city limits.
Heather Mullen, executive director for the Rifle Animal Shelter, and CARE Executive Director Wes Boyd, both questioned the elimination of the program. They said it could make for a dangerous situation if residents try to round up stray animals themselves.
“Garfield County has been a progressive county for the past 15 years, and has been ahead of the game on this,” Mullen said. “This is a huge step backwards.
“Now we’re going to have untrained people out there handling these animals. I think this is something that really needs to be given a lot of thought,” she said.
Boyd said he hopes there’s some way that CARE can continue to cooperate with the county on animal control in some manner.
“As you know, we don’t have any legal rights to go out and enforce the law, or pick up someone’s animal,” he said. “This seems very abrupt if we lost that support from Sheriff’s Office.”
Daryl Meisner is the former police chief in Rifle. He pointed out during the discussion that when the county previously eliminated animal control in the 1990s, many animals ended up being abandoned in city limits, figured the local police would take care of it.
“That’s one of the biggest unintended consequences of this,” Meisner said.
Samson said he would like for the county to explore a way to phase out the program over the next year and identify possible solutions to transfer it to another entity after that.
“I’m concerned about what kind of mess this is going to cause,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for our county to have stray cats and dogs running around.”
However, “the responsibility is going to have to fall upon others out there to take up the cause,” Samson said.
County commissioners have been meeting with other department heads and elected officials over the past week to go through budget requests. Final adoption of the 2021 Garfield County budget is slated to go to a public hearing on Dec. 7.
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