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Fund the Louisiana SPCA 

Mayor Nagin should beware: This problem could, literally and figuratively, come back to bite him on the butt.

It's hard for Mayor Ray Nagin to claim that a consistently underfunded nonprofit organization doesn't understand budget constraints. Especially when that nonprofit has subsidized city services for years. Yet that's exactly what Hizzoner did in the case of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LA/SPCA), a nonprofit that historically has provided animal control services to the City of New Orleans at below-cost rates. Nagin intended to reduce the SPCA's 2005 budget by $200,000 -- an amount that represents a budgetary slap in the face to an organization that has, for years, met budget gaps between what its animal-control services actually cost and what the city is willing to pay.

Make no mistake: The SPCA has never been funded enough to fully meet the city's needs. Were that the case, stray animals would be a rare sight on city streets, and we'd see far more animal-cruelty cases on the dockets at Criminal District Court. What, then, was the rationale behind Nagin's stance? Ours is a city where stray animals remain very much a problem, and the SPCA has been unable to answer all animal-control calls. After Nagin's announcement, the SPCA told the mayor it cannot manage New Orleans' animal control problems with such limited funding.

Last week, the City Council pledged to make up the shortfall. As of press time, the mayor planned to meet with the SPCA to discuss possible long-term solutions to this perennial problem.

It's baffling that city officials would bite the hand that has fed them for so long. For years, the SPCA has paid part of New Orleans' animal-control budget out of its own pocket. (This is a portion of the nonprofit's total budget, which also includes public services such as sheltering, spaying and neutering, and adoptions.) For this year, the city offered $1 million in cash and in-kind services such as trash pickup and rodent control. The SPCA's actual operating budget for animal control will probably be $1.4 million, as it was last year. The organization is not asking for that much from the city; it's requesting only $1.2 million in cash and in-kind services. Not many contractors would offer to pay $200,000 of the city's expenses, yet that's what the SPCA is doing. Amazingly, Nagin rejected it.

According to the International City/County Management Association, effective city governments spend $4 to $7 per resident on animal control. Were the city to agree to the SPCA's $1.2 million request, that's still less than $3 per person.

By all accounts, the SPCA has succeeded tremendously despite funding shortfalls. Since becoming executive director in 2001, Laura Maloney has expanded the once-troubled agency, introduced cost-cutting and revenue-producing initiatives, and expanded membership and services. She also serves on a prestigious national advisory board for the Humane Society of the United States, composed of "the best and brightest" animal welfare and shelter experts in the country, according to the HSUS.

Nagin, like Maloney, received an MBA from Tulane University's Freeman School of Business. Were he to review the nonprofit's books, he'd surely recognize that this is exactly the type of resourceful, effective and competent agency that the city should seek to perform needed services. Sadly, city officials are now implying they could hire someone else to do the job -- or let municipal employees do it. One look at the crime statistics confirms that City Hall doesn't need any more on its plate. Moreover, this isn't the type of task that can be assigned to just anyone. The SPCA has the facilities and more than 100 years of experience -- and three of its six officers are certified by the National Animal Control Association.

Nagin's arrogant stance would be laughable if the consequences weren't so dire -- more dog packs and feral cat colonies spreading disease and threatening the safety of residents and domestic pets. Animal-cruelty crimes also would increase. Nagin should beware: This problem could, literally and figuratively, come back to bite him on the butt.

In 2003, New Orleans gave the SPCA just more than $1 million for animal control; the actual budget was more than $1.4 million, and the SPCA made up the difference. That year, SPCA records show, animal-control officers received about 22,000 calls (and responded to nearly 20,000), conducted 3,643 investigations and inspections, managed 436 bite cases, and won 99 percent of 226 animal-cruelty cases. The city should help the SPCA build on this excellent record -- not make the mistake some other cities have made in dismissing animal-control contractors. For example, the Washington, D.C., City Council in 2003 refused to grant a long-term contract to the local Humane Society that had, for generations, provided animal control. The agency relinquished its services, city health officials took over, and then they hired another contractor. After months of sub-par services, humbled Washington officials agreed to the Humane Society's terms. We expect that the mayor ultimately will honor the SPCA's budget request, but we emphasize that even that's not enough. We urge him to acknowledge that the SPCA is uniquely qualified to handle an incredibly important service for the city and to fund its animal-control budget fully henceforth.

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