Lois Henry

Saturday, Sep 07 2013 10:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Data is helpful, but only if you have it

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A 2-year-old German Shepherd who was brought into the shelter July 28 sits in his cage at the Kern County Animal Shelter.

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By Lois Henry

Kern County supervisors have pledged a pile of money -- $250,000 -- to spay/neuter efforts.

That's a lot of money and I wish I could say it's going to do a lot of good.

Related Info

Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

THE IMPORTANCE OF DATA

The county not only has a voucher program for privately owned animals, it also pays local veterinarians and AngelDogs to fix shelter pets that go to adopters.

AngelDogs is a Los Angeles-based, private, nonprofit organization that does surgeries at the shelter twice a month.

As with many of its other programs, Animal Control doesn’t track how much it spends on these surgeries, nor even how many surgeries are performed each year.

I had to go through boxes of paper invoices (because the county says it doesn’t keep them electronically) and tally animals altered and costs by hand.

Here’s what I found:

It cost the county approximately $121,344 to alter 1,925 dogs using private, local vets

in 2012. That averages out to $63 per animal.

AngelDogs, meanwhile, charged $209,605 to alter 2,058 animals, or an average of $102 per animal.

These are rough estimates reliant on how accurate the documents provided were and there may be other variables involved in the costs.

But at the very least, the numbers suggest that had the 2,058 animals altered by AngelDogs gone to local vets, it may have saved the county nearly $80,000 that year.

If the county were tracking that information, I would think that would raise some bean counter eyebrows.

Instead, in late 2012, Animal Control Director Jen Woodard unilaterally renewed AngelDogs’ contract without taking any other bids.

Initially, the contract was for $898,250 through June 2014. After complaints from the city of Bakersfield, it was amended to $378,250 and expired in June.

In July, Woodard requested and got a three-month extension on the AngelDogs contract from the Board of Supervisors.

It won't.

That's because Kern County Animal Control does not have a money problem. It has a data problem.

We can't fix animal overpopulation if we don't know where the animals are coming from.

And believe me, not knowing where the majority of shelter animals is coming from is just the tip of the iceberg of what Animal Control doesn't know about its own programs and operations.

* How much does it cost to transport animals to out-of-town rescues?

* How much does it cost to run the Public Education and Enforcement Team (PEET) and how much revenue comes in from those teams in the form of license fees?

* How much do the vaccines for the monthly city/county clinics cost?

* How much revenue comes in from licenses sold at those clinics?

No clue.

"Expenditures are not tracked by program," Deputy County Counsel Kendra Graham told me after my umpteenth public records request to try and figure out where Animal Control spends taxpayer money.

How on earth, then, can the department evaluate whether a program is working?

Come on people! This is not rocket science.

There are solutions to Kern's animal overpopulation problem. But those solutions rely on one thing: Data. Data. Data.

***

At the heart of Jacksonville, Fla.'s success was data. Specifically, knowing where shelter animals were coming from and then targetting those areas with aggressive, affordable spay/neuter options.

Otherwise, you're just whistling in the dark.

Kern County Animal Control's database has the ability to track where shelter animals come from. But, frustratingly, that feature has never been used.

Animal Control workers sometimes enter the zip code of the person bringing in the animal, or maybe the zip code of where the animal was found, or, eh, no zip code at all.

There are no guidelines. (Annoying side note: A 2008 UC Davis report chided the county for exactly this kind of poor record keeping yet it hasn't been fixed in the intervening five years.)

After repeatedly being asked by Californian reporters for better geographic information, Animal Control Director Jen Woodard said the department decided to go through its 2012 intake records by hand and tease out what zip codes it could.

It's not nearly specific enough, but the information is showing 93307, southeast Bakersfield, is the highest producer of cats and dogs coming to the shelter. Some other low-income areas are also high producers.

That's a start, I suppose. But an extremely weak one considering what we're up against and how long the county has had to fix this problem.

***

Woodard is set to give a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday outlining how she would use that $250,000 to ramp up Kern’s spay/neuter programs.

According to details of her proposal, made public late Friday, she wants to use $150,000 for more low-income vouchers (the county currently spends about $40,000 a year on such vouchers), $50,000 for mobile clinics, $40,000 for feral cat alterations and $10,000 to fix animals being reclaimed by their owners from the shelter.

My advice to the board: Pass.

The recommendations are vague at best and rely on the county partnering with some mythical non-profit group to actually carry out the programs.

But the biggest flaw in Woodard’s plan is that it is not targeted.

It would spread the money around “even Steven,” which flies in the face of the proven success of targeted spay/neuter.

If you’re not zeroing in on areas of the community that produce the most unwanted animals, you’re squandering resources.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, that’s a major data sore point for us.

Though Woodard mentions the Jacksonville, Fla. model in her proposal, her recommendations would take us in the opposite direction, back to failure.

We cannot simply pour more money into the same passive voucher system already in place, which already doesn’t work, and expect a different outcome.

Here’s how the county’s low-income voucher system works now.

Residents must fill out an application, which is not available online. Their income has to be verified by Animal Control staffers, which means they have to wait for a call back. If approved, they have to pay $20 co-pay. There’s a limit of four vouchers per person, per lifetime. And the voucher doesn’t cover any extras, such as if the pet is pregnant, ill or needs vaccinations.

It’s no wonder county vouchers were used to fix only 348 animals in 2012. So far, this year, that number is an abysmal 124.

Under Woodard’s new and “improved” plan, an as-yet-unknown non-profit would take resident inquiries, pre-qualify them as low income over the phone, send the person a list of participating veterinarians and make the spay/neuter appointment.

On the day of the surgery, the resident would take the pet, and some kind of document that proves his or her low-income status to the vet.

The vet would then have to mail the income documentation and voucher to the unknown non-profit, which would then invoice the county.

Oh for cripes sake.

If the Jacksonville, Fla. example teaches us anything, it is that you must remove all roadblocks keeping people from getting their pets fixed.

Send volunteers loaded down with vouchers to areas of town where you suspect most unwanted animals are coming from. Snap a smartphone pic of residents’ PG&E bills. If they’re on the CARE program, they’re low-income enough for a voucher. Collect $20, or whatever the person can afford. Give people as many vouchers as they have unfixed animals. Help them make the appointment and give them a ride if they need it. Repeat over and over.

Or some variation of the above.

***

Or, take this task out of the county's hands entirely. Please.

About a week ago, I asked Board of Supervisors Chairman Mike Maggard why supervisors don't open up that $250,000 for other parties to bid on.

Maggard agreed that may be something to consider.

I hope so.

There are lots of smart, creative people out there who could really make that $250,000 count.

Animal Control has clearly shown it is not up to this task.

A decade of failure is more than enough.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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