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Local Government Facts

Using Facts to Investigate County
Animal Control Shelters

 

Dogs barking endlessly, cats destroying planting beds, and “road kill” on our streets can be neighborhood nuisances. Dealing with these and other animal problems is almost entirely a local-government matter in America. In California, searching the Internet for State agencies that address this issue yields little help. Therefore, inquiring into the effectiveness of animal control services is a matter of local citizen activism.

Occasionally, California civil grand jurors investigate the methods, procedures, systems, etc., that local governments use to cope with animal-related problems. Citizen complaints to grand juries are typically about the duty hours of city or county pounds, allegations of unclean, noisy, or inhumane conditions, or how employees of pounds or animal shelters respond to citizens who request help. The following examples of newspaper headlines from our files provide some insight concerning grand jury interventions into the animal control function in California local government:

  • Animal Control or Damage Control: Agency boss quits as grand jury issues scathing report
  • Grand Jury puts Bite on Animal Shelter
  • Grand Jury Report: Audit is Needed of Animal Shelter

This list of workload activities performed by employees working in animal shelters yields another snap-shot view of this important local-government function:

Dogs impounded Cats picked up dead
Dogs adopted Cats euthanized
Dogs turned in Citations issued
Dogs redeemed Warning notices
Dogs euthanized Licenses sold
Cats impounded Bite cases
Cats turned in Service calls
Cats redeemed Adoptions/Animal Rescue
Cats adopted Animals returned to owners

The above list reveals only some of the many workload activities one might find employees performing in a local-government animal shelter. Occasionally, grand juries use such data in their investigations. Unfortunately, too often the recommendations grand jurors make in their reports about animal control services are subjective statements devoid of supporting facts, such as

  • We recommend that the board of supervisors authorize the hiring of three more employees in the animal shelter.
  • A better drainage system is needed to curb infections.
  • The cost of licenses is too high and should be lowered to encourage more adoptions of dogs and cats.

As commendable as these recommendations might be, they were accompanied by no facts to justify them. For example, it is no doubt true that high costs of licenses for cats and dogs can discourage citizens from buying them. Nowhere in the report could readers find any reference to the actual license costs. Thus, citizens reading the report had no basis for evaluating the recommendation. Are the present costs too high or too low? What proof is available to help readers judge the effects of license fee costs on the numbers of licenses issued?

Some readers of the grand jury report might contend that pet owners should bear some responsibility for the welfare of their pets. One purpose of licensing dogs and cats is to help animal shelter employees locate their owners if the animals have somehow been placed in a shelter. Responsible citizens, one would think, should be willing to pay for at least part of the cost of having their pets returned to them. A crucial question to be considered is, when are pet licenses too high or too low to serve their purposes? Nothing in the grand jury report that included the third recommendation would have helped a busy animal shelter director, newspaper reporters, or other citizens reading the grand jury report to decide whether the grand jury’s recommendation is merely guess work or the result of valid fact finding.

The public official in charge of the animal control shelter and to whom the recommendation was directed presumably would welcome the civil grand jury’s assistance if it offered a factual basis for considering a suitable fee for pet licenses. Someone familiar with civil grand jury authority might argue that deciding what the dollar amount of a license fee should be is a policy issue. As we state elsewhere in this web site, California civil grand juries have no jurisdiction in matters of public policy. However, a review of the method and procedure used to establish such a fee would be well within the civil grand jury’s authority. Thus, grand jurors could offer suggestions in their report about where useful information might be obtained to conduct the research for establishing fees.

If, in their investigation, the grand jurors had reviewed the publications of the various professional associations related to the animal control function, they probably would have found monographs that discuss revenue-and-expenditure issues for animal control services in local government. Obviously, the department head reading the panel’s report, assuming that person was competent, would have known about this kind of information. In fact, he or she might have tried to persuade higher authorities to approve an increase in license fees. This, however, is not the point. By including hard data about the subject in their report, grand jurors would have shown readers that the panel was not “shooting from the hip” and that its members were capable of conducting the needed research to make their point. To put the matter another way, solid data would have persuaded readers that the grand jurors were not idly ruminating about what might be but that they were competent, using hard facts, to instigate needed change. The issue of the institution’s authenticity thereby extends beyond facts to the efficacy, prestige, and integrity of the grand jury itself.

On this page we offer an example of facts pertaining to license fees that are available from the office of the State Controller of California, namely, the total amount of license fees counties report that they collect each year for “Pound” purposes. These dollar amounts can be useful for evaluating animal license fees and modifying them, if necessary. For example, one use for county-by-county data is to see how much license fees offset expenditures for animal control services.

To see what these data might look like, we retrieved them from the State Controller’s Office for each of eight recent years. Using a spreadsheet formula, we calculated for each county for each of the eight years what percentage the collected license fees were of the total pound expenditures. We refer to these numbers as “offset percentages” and display them in three ways:

  1. The offset percentage for each county in the State for each of the eight years [View]
  2. The offset percentage for each county in each of the regions of the State [View]
  3. A summary table of the average percentages for each region [View]

You will also find the rank orders of the percentage figures in each of these tables.

Unfortunately, varying expenditure amounts are missing for 13 counties. No information is provided on the State Controller’s Web site to explain why these data are missing. No doubt a telephone call or letter to the appropriate county official will yield the reason or reasons. In the case of California civil grand juries, obtaining the missing data or learning why the data are missing is an excellent example of what civil grand jurors can do to ensure the availability of such statewide information for use by public officials, newspaper reporters, and other citizens of their county.

The Source of the Data

We selected the animal control function in local government because we often use it as an example when we train civil grand jurors. Years ago, we learned that some grand jurors have strong emotional attachments to different kinds of local-government services. If, for example, our training group includes one or two retired welfare workers, deputy sheriffs, or county librarians, they might interpret our use of facts pertaining to their former employment as criticisms of the public service that constituted their career. Also, civil grand jurors who had an unsatisfactory experience as private citizens with a particular public service occasionally make caustic comments about it, thereby distracting their colleagues attending the class. Realizing that most people like animals, we now often use animal control services as a case in point to illustrate various concepts in our on-site training programs.

The reason we selected this topic is less important than other issues we wish to discuss before you review our tables. The most important of these is something we will often refer to in this Web page: Use facts as often as possible, but understand their limitations. In this case, as with other topics, we are using data someone else has collected, namely, the Office of the State Controller of California. This is one of the oldest offices of California State government, and its data-collecting procedures were, for many years, a model for other state governments in the United States. Unfortunately, despite the most exacting methods that organization uses to collect facts, problems will, on occasion, be found in them. To understand fully how that agency collects the facts that make up its various reports of local-government financial transactions, readers should familiarize themselves with its Web site.

Because the purpose of this page is not to provide facts suitable for immediate decision making, but to illustrate how facts can be obtained and used for studying local government, we have not verified the data. We present them only as examples of facts, correct or otherwise. In actual practice, we would take steps to obtain the missing data from the pertinent counties so that all of them are represented in our study. We would also use these data only as a basis for discussing their significance with knowledgeable persons, such as the public officials who provided them to the State of California. One should always expect to find some disagreement about the accuracy of any collection of facts. Even if some of the data are incorrect, a discussion with a county or city auditor or the animal shelter administrator will probably result in agreement about how to obtain correct information.

Four Patterns in the Tables

A preliminary inspection of the tables reveals considerable variation in the data. California counties vary so remarkably in their character that many different forces affect such data. The only way one might expect to find unvarying percentages for each county is to create and enforce a law or regulation to force public officials to adhere to a Statewide offset standard. Fortunately for the ideal of self-government, no such requirement exists for the animal control function.

A first step in trying to make sense of a display of the percentages over an eight-year period is to group them in some sort of order. For example, we might define percentages ranging from 1% to 9% as “unusually low.” Next, we could designate percentages ranging from 10% to 15% as “mid-range.” A third category we might call “unusually high” for percentages ranging from 16% up. We could use this artificial method to see how our county’s percentage stands region- or statewide.

In scanning the table, we might also notice oddities or anomalies that call for further investigation. For example, we might see that one or more counties have low percentages for several of the early years in the display and then rise somewhat noticeably for several or all of the remaining years. The reverse might also be true: Some counties have high percentages in the early years and then drop noticeably. Finally, we might find that several counties exhibit a pattern that suggests a problem of some kind.

Depending on which of these counties is of particular interest to us, we might make use of some of these patterns and ignore others. For example, if it appears that our county’s Statewide trend is noticeably low, we could compare it to other counties in our region to see how it stands. The same might be true of high percentages. Additionally, if it turns out that our county has the highest offset percentage in the State for the eight-year span, we might want to see what effect this has on intake statistics for the study period. The same might also be true if our county is the lowest in rank for the eight years. These, and other observations that we will not itemize further, suggest questions that we might explore as one part of an attempt to see how things are going in our animal shelter.

We will refrain from discussing the data further, except for a final comment about their possible use, based on many years of training civil grand jurors in California. Occasionally, grand jurors ask us if, in addition to pointing out problems in local government, they may commend public officials for their good work. This would be desirable, of course, if we decided the facts were reliable and that our pat on the back had no undesirable consequences. We would also resist jumping to conclusions if we discovered that our county had the lowest offset percentage. Possibly the animal control director has an acceptable explanation for this fact and therefore deserves an opportunity to tell us what that is. In every case, good or bad, we need to be guided by the same principle: Take no action on raw facts without further inquiry. After all, we do not wish to bark up the wrong tree.


July 7, 2008

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