After scandal, University Place looks to county for animal control services

Staff writerAugust 29, 2013 

It started as an embarrassment for the City of University Place — an animal control officer fired last summer for stealing cash from the scene of a pot bust. It has ended with UP dismantling its animal control program, and signing a contract with Pierce County for animal services.

The City Council approved the $80,536 annual contract last week after completing a cost assessment and weighing a competing bid from the city of Lakewood.

For UP residents, the change means animal control officers will be available seven days a week instead of the five days the city’s officers were on duty, said City Attorney Steve Victor.

It also means a higher standard of professionalism. County animal control officers are empowered to carry out warrants and enforce infractions. As employees of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, they go through three to four months of field training.

The team includes “nationally certified cruelty investigators with some pretty serious law enforcement training,” said County Auditor Julie Anderson, who’s in charge of animal licensing and services.

Paying outside governments for core services is nothing new in University Place. The county Sheriff’s Department has had the police contract since the city formed in 1996. In addition, the county has been handling some animal control duties in the city of 31,270 residents off and on for the past year after one of the city’s two animal officers was fired and the other quit.

Those duties have been limited to the most serious incidents. “We’re not responding to barking dogs or smelly chickens,” Anderson said.

But as of Sunday, the county will answer those run-of the-mill complaints on top of wide-ranging duties such as impounding dangerous dogs, conducting cruelty and neglect investigations, picking up stray and injured animals, and accompanying sheriff’s deputies who go to properties where problem pets may be present. County animal control officers carry batons and pepper spray.

“One of the attractive things about having us in UP is we are already part of the Sheriff’s Department family so we expect communication to be very tight,” Anderson said.

Presumably, there will also be more trust — something that was blown on Aug. 9, 2012, when both of the city’s animal control officers responded with deputies to the scene of a marijuana-grow operation in the 7800 block of 35th Street West. A 28-year-old animal officer was arrested and later fired after deputies determined $1,400 in cash had been removed from the secured crime scene and stashed in the animal control officers’ truck.

University Place officials say the county contract will bring cost savings in addition to a higher level of service. The city, which had an animal control program since its founding, budgeted about $240,000 for its two animal control officers, who doubled as nuisance code enforcement officers.

The city will now have to hire a separate nuisance officer, but the total cost for animal control and code enforcement will be about $40,000 less than what UP had been paying, Victor said.

“It’s a great deal. We think it’s efficient and an improvement over what we had,” he said.

As part of the agreement, the city had to adopt the county’s animal code in its entirety, including its provisions for dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs. Both Victor and Anderson said they don’t expect ordinary pet owners to be affected.

The city still will issue pet licenses, and all animal-related infractions and criminal misdemeanor cases will continue to be filed in municipal court, which UP contracts with Lakewood.

University Place is far and away the largest city or town for which the county will provide animal services. The county also has contracts with Carbonado, Eatonville, Roy and South Prairie, on top of handling animal calls for the vast unincorporated area of more than 375,000 residents.

Matt Misterek: 253-597-8472

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