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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."
It all began when Rosenberg, a Chamber of Commerce booster in the Miami-Dade community of Kendall, heard about the shelter’s high kill rate and couldn’t quite believe it. He requested and was given permission to spend a day in the euthanasia room, from which he emerged a changed man. Deeply disturbed that 60 to 70 animals were dying every day because nobody wanted them and the shelter had no space, he vowed to accomplish what many had tried to do and failed: end the carnage.
Long an underfunded bureaucratic afterthought, Miami-Dade Animal Services  had been run by the public works and police departments before it became its own department in 2005, headed for the first time by a veterinarian and given a general-fund budget (another first). Previously, it had subsisted on fees and fines, and focused on enforcement rather than adoption.
At times, the kill rate topped 75 percent, casting the county’s threadbare shelter as a notorious death factory.
The veterinarian, Dr. Sara Pizano, brought a different perspective in 2005. She upgraded the open-admission facility, increased adoptions and reduced euthanasia. But poverty, an out-of-control feral cat population and entrenched customs in a multicultural county of 2.5 million people continued to fuel the high intake. Some 100 animals come in daily to a shelter that can humanely house no more than 400. Most years, owners reclaim fewer than 1,500 lost pets.
Even at its peak of $10 million, the department’s budget never came close to meeting its needs. Then came the financial collapse of 2008, and with it, deep cuts to all county departments.
Pizano left in 2011, replaced by veteran county administrator Alex Muñoz, who faced the same lack of political will to adequately fund Animal Services as did his predecessors.
In late 2011, Mike Rosenberg was fresh off a victorious, against-all-odds battle with the county’s water and sewer department over billing practices. The kind of guy who doesn’t hear the word "no," he decided on a novel approach: no more begging or "guilting" the commissioners.
Instead, he adopted the model of another local initiative, the Children’s Trust , a public/private partnership that provides dedicated tax revenue for services to at-risk children. Voters approved the plan, but only after a decade-long, nearly $2 million lobbying effort.
When Pets’ Trust proponents applied to the Petco Foundation for a grant before the election, foundation president Paul Jolly, knowing Miami-Dade’s reputation, was so skeptical that he initially declined. Then came the election. "If I would have picked a community for this to happen, it would not be Miami," says Jolly. "For something like this to be accepted by the citizens and commissioners, it’s sign of the apocalypse!"
He finds the notion of a public/private partnership and voter ratification "intriguing … We thought it was a great template program to be used in other parts of the U.S." He signed on to help.
"I agreed to be on the advisory committee— and the cheering committee … This seems [to be] light-years above what any other community is doing in terms of animal welfare."
Photo credit Liam Crotty