The near-deafening sound of more than 100 dogs barking in unison fills the hall at Pima Animal Care Center, while parents and children eagerly peer into the kennels hoping to find a new pet to bring home.
The lucky dogs will get adopted. A different fate awaits many other dogs and cats that will join the thousands of other animals the county euthanizes each year.
Oro Valley officials have begun to talk about cutting ties with Pima County's animal care center, and having the town take up animal licensing and control duties. If the town did break its contract, it would become the only municipality in Pima County to manage animal control and licensing on its own.
Councilwoman Salette Latas has pushed for the town to investigate the best way to take over animal licensing and care duties, and break the intergovernmental agreement that binds Oro Valley to Pima County. The goal in taking over the county service would be to move toward a no-kill animal care shelter that handles Oro Valley's lost and stray animals, Latas said.
The town council allocated $10,000 in the recently approved budget to conduct a feasibility study on the issue.
At a June 24 study session, the council discussed issues associated with the proposed takeover, such as costs, euthanasia and animal control.
A major discussion point was what to do with stray and lost animals. Town staffers have suggested that Oro Valley seek partnerships with animal rescue and adoption non-profit groups. The groups would help find homes for animals and house them in the interim. Currently, no animal kennels operate in the town.
Councilman Al Kunisch seemed reluctant to break the agreement with the county and have the town take over animal care duties. He cited the likely expenses that the undertaking would entail.
"You can see that with taking over something like this, government is going to grow," Kunisch said.
If Oro Valley took over from the county, some mechanism for issuing bills and collecting fees from animal owners would have to be devised. Under the current agreement, pet owners in Oro Valley pay county licensing fees. Last year, Oro Valley pet owners paid more than $46,000 to the county, according to town and county figures.
The town paid another $8,000 out of its general fund to make up the shortfall of animal control services received. Those excess charges emanate mostly from calls for animal control service, for which there were 183 in fiscal 2008, according to county figures. In fiscal 2009, officials estimate that county animal control agents will have responded to 304 calls for service in Oro Valley.
The costs of taking over the county service have not been determined.
According to town estimates, if Oro Valley charged the same amount for pet licensing that Pima County does, as much as $313,000 in licensing fees would flow into town coffers. That figure, though, is based on 100 percent compliance with licensing regulations, far from the reality of compliance rates.
Approximately 25 percent of pets in Oro Valley have up-to-date licenses. According to estimates, townspeople own more than 11,000 dogs. Countywide, animal owners license closer to 50 percent of pets, according to Pima Animal Care Center manager Kim Janes.
"How are you expecting to get 100 percent compliance?" Councilwoman Paula Abbott asked Latas at the June 24 meeting.
Latas replied that 100 percent compliance likely wouldn't happen, but said people would be more willing to pay licensing fees if the system were better run than that of Pima County.
"I'm expecting that if people think their animals are safer they're going to get them licensed," Latas replied.
Other jurisdictions in the state were cited as examples of how Oro Valley might operate animal licensing.
The City of Prescott manages its own animal control and has a contract with Yavapai County and Prescott Valley, a neighboring town, to do animal licensing. Prescott's five-person animal control department has a $386,000 budget. The city also operates an animal care facility.
Tom Guice, the city's community development director, said the facility has a 75 percent adoption rate. Outside groups help the city facilitate the adoptions.
Recently, the Prescott City Council heard a proposal to hand over control of the care facility to the Yavapai Humane Society at a cost of $49,000 per year.
"Our thinking is that this is one of those things that government cannot do better," Guice said.
The City of Sedona also contracts with nonprofit groups for animal care and licensing. Same with the City of Flagstaff, which last year paid $243,000 to the Coconino Humane Association for animal control services.
The issue of animal enforcement also arose at last week's meeting. Details of how the town would operate animal care and control have not yet been determined.
Latas said local pet owners haven't been served well by the county system.
"The level of service that we have is very minimal," Latas said.
Councilman Barry Gillaspie also offered a harsh criticism of PACC.
"From my perspective, I think that they are poorly managed," Gillaspie said.
Gillaspie suggested the town continue to study the possibility of taking over animal licensing and control from the county. "From a policy perspective I think that it's the right thing to do because Oro Valley can do better," Gillaspie said.
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry took issue with the comments.
"We think that's unfounded and a little bit inappropriate from people who have not run an animal shelter," Huckelberry said. "It's a little more complicated than running a shelter."
Pima County also handles road-kill cleanup and other animal issues throughout the county.
Huckelberry said he was surprised that Oro Valley officials didn't invite the county to the meeting to discuss the issue with the town.
In January, after the issue of animal care was raised in a December council meeting, Huckelberry sent a memo to Oro Valley Town Manager David Andrews offering to have Pima Animal Care Center staffers attend any subsequent meetings.
Huckelberry also told Andrews of "misconceptions" about PACC transmitted at that December meeting, including a claim that the county received $250,000 from town residents for animal care services, and that local police respond to twice as many animal-related calls than county animal control officials.
The county administrator said those and other comments made at the December meeting were inaccurate.
Regarding calls for police service, town council members proposed that Oro Valley police take over animal control and enforcement duties.
Latas said the police would be able to take over animal control without much added expense because of the limited amount of animals the county captured in Oro Valley last year, about 24. She said some of the department's existing vehicles could serve in an animal control function.
The change wouldn't expand town bureaucracy, as Councilman Kunisch had suggested, Latas believes.
"We already have a police department that has a $13 million budget, worrying about swelling government is a little late in the game," Latas said.
When asked by council members for his input on the proposal, Police Chief Danny Sharp said the police might not be prepared to take on that responsibility.
"We're just not equipped or trained to deal with certain animals," Sharp said.
According to police statistics, Oro Valley officers responded to 78 animal control calls in fiscal 2008.
"We need to understand that animal control is a 24/7 obligation," Abbott said, adding, "They signed up to be police officers, not animal control officers."
Costs and operations weren't the only issues behind the proposal to end the contract with the county. The rate of euthanasia also featured prominently in the discussion.
Councilwoman Latas played a video of a local news report for the council, which detailed an incident where PACC euthanized a family pet even after its owners attempted to retrieve the animal.
"PACC kills about a dump truck full of animals every day," Latas said, showing the council a photo of a truck emptying a pile of dead animals in a landfill. "That's where they end up, in the Tangerine Road landfill."
Janes confirmed the county disposes of euthanized animals in the landfill, but said his department was looking at finding a vendor that could cremate the animals.
He also noted the volume of animals that the county receives leaves few options other than to euthanize some animals. Pima Animal Care Center received more than 20,000 animals last year, but as many as 13,000 of those animals were killed. Because it's a government agency, PACC can't turn away animals the way a private shelter can, Janes said.
"To think that we are in a position as a society that I have to ask our staff members to euthanize animals," Janes said. "It's an extremely emotional issue for us."
To date in 2009, about 38 percent of the animals taken in have been placed in new homes. This year the county has adopted out or given to rescue organizations more than 8,000 animals, a total that nearly meets the number of animals adopted last year.
Janes attributes the increase to the strong presence of volunteer organizations at Pima Animal Care Center.
The county has partnerships with more than 30 rescue groups and those that work to facilitate adoptions, similar to the proposal from Oro Valley leaders.
But Janes said the arrangements aren't without problems. Some of the groups will take animals even when their facilities have reached capacity.
"Their hearts are just too big," Janes said.
When an organization like a no-kill shelter gets overloaded with animals, Janes said they become not a county vendor but the subject of an investigation.
"That's my concern, that we'll become a community of hoarders and we'll (Pima County Animal Care Center) be supporting it," Janes said.
He points out the perils of moving toward a no-kill shelter model.
"I don't know if the community could go to no-kill," Janes said. "We would love if we could get to the point where some individual or organization could fund the saving of every animal."
County Administrator Huckelberry also cast doubt on the feasibility of no-kill.
"I think the definition of no-kill is artificial," Huckelberry said. "A certain percent of animals that come in are not adoptable."
The Oro Valley Town Council has not yet scheduled another study session on the issue.
Pima Animal Care Center is expanding
The county is nearing completion of a $4.5-million expansion and improvement project at Pima Animal Care Center, 4000 N. Silverbell Road.
The work includes a new 30-kennel building where dogs would be on display for prospective owners. Those outside kennels include a dog run where people can have more interaction with a dog before adopting.
The county also had a new air-handling system installed that is capable of circulating fresh air into the current facility, where the bulk of animals are housed, up to six times an hour. PACC officials said the new system would help reduce the risk of diseases spereading at the facility.
Work at Pima Animal Care Center is expected to wrap up in late December. Funds for the expansion came from Pima County bonds.