Raise taxes to save animals? In this economy?
When a grassroots coalition of animal lovers, sick at heart about Miami-Dade County’s perennially high shelter death rate, proposed asking voters to do just that, veteran rescuers responded with a resounding: "Yeah, right."
But on election day last November, a solid majority of voters—65 percent— did exactly that via straw ballot, setting the county on a clear path to fulfill the no-kill goal that county commissioners had adopted five months earlier, albeit without providing funding to make it happen.
The initiative, Pets’ Trust, should raise $20 million annually through property taxes for measures designed to reduce intake at the county’s high-kill shelter, and the intake rate’s main driver, overpopulation.
The trust will operate independently of the county’s Animal Services Department, funding grants to accomplish what Animal Services can’t afford to do. The unpaid, 13-member board will include the department’s director, veterinarians, rescue-group leaders, sheltering experts and knowledgeable lay people.
The cornerstone of the campaign: free and low-cost high-volume spay/ neuter clinics and public education.
Bolstered by the straw ballot’s solid win, the county commission is poised to enact legislation this year that would add about $20 to the average property owner’s tax bill. It will "sunset" periodically so that voters can monitor its progress and decide whether to quit or continue.
It’s a unique approach that trust organizers expect will inspire similar efforts nationwide. There’s already one well under way in neighboring Broward County, and "how did you do it?" inquiries are coming in from around the country.
As the Florida Legislature kicked off its 2013 session in early March, organizers sped to Tallahassee and secured sponsors in both chambers for a statewide Pets Trust bill.
Michael Rosenberg, the Miami-area businessman who conceived Pets’ Trust, estimates that Miami-Dade—which kills more than half of the 37,000 animals who end up at the shelter—can reach its no-kill goal in four years once the clinics are up and running. How this Miami miracle came to pass owes equally to one man’s determination and to a fractious rescue community’s willingness to shelve philosophical differences and work toward a longsought and seemingly impossible outcome: keeping dogs and cats out of the county shelter’s euthanasia room.
In a mere 10 months and on a shoestring budget of $70,000, trust proponents managed to sway key commissioners and nearly 500,000 supportive voters. They reached out to more than two dozen animal-welfare authorities, who consulted on the plan’s proposed mission and structure. The roster includes experts from Best Friends Animal Society, the ASPCA, the Petco Foundation and the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Aggressive use of social media, an adorable "spokes-puppy" who charmed commissioners before a crucial vote and publicity gimmicks like the 60-year-old Rosenberg’s weekend in a dog run at the shelter helped close the deal.
But Rosenberg, who’d never been involved in an animal-related cause, mainly credits others: rescue advocate Rita Schwartz, spay-neuter activist Lindsay Gorton and a small army of volunteers who took to the streets to convince skeptical citizens that even in a time of historic budget shortfalls and human-services cutbacks, innocent animals deserved a chance to survive.
The "warm and fuzzy” approach swayed some, but for others, there was a sound economic argument to be made. It costs about $300 to house, feed and medically treat an ultimately doomed animal during the mandatory "stray hold" period. In contrast, spay/neuter costs $65.
"I believe when you engage the community as we did and educate with the facts and no negative campaigning and pointing blame, here’s what happens," said Rosenberg, who owns a promotional- item customizing company. "People around the country can’t get over it. They’re amazed."