Facing higher costs, county hopes Navajo Nation will pay portion of cost to shelter reservation animals

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FARMINGTON — The question of who will pay to care for which stray animals has become a challenge for San Juan County and Farmington officials.

This year, the county will see a 6 percent increase in costs for housing animals at two local animal shelters.

The county will pay about $766,000 to house animals. One reason for the increased price is that Farmington is phasing out a subsidy it currently provides the county. Next year, the price likely will be higher. 

More than $200,000 of that $766,000 is spent on animals from the Navajo Nation at the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter.

County Commissioner Jack Fortner has asked for a letter to be sent to Navajo Nation officials explaining the costs. He is optimistic that the tribe will be open to paying a portion of the more than $200,000 annual costs.

He said the tribe has shown a willingness to share the financial burden when provided with details about the cost of other services the county provides on the reservation. As an example, Fortner cited the tribe taking over the operation of fire stations located on the Navajo Nation after the county requested money to keep operating them.

Navajo Nation animal control program director Glenda Davis is less optimistic. She said the tribe has been unwilling to listen to her requests for additional animal control officers.

Davis has six animal control officers patrolling an area larger than the state of West Virginia. Davis said she requested six additional officers in 2017 and later decreased that request to two. Davis said the tribe has not approved any additional staffing.

Between 2012 and 2016, Navajo Nation animal control received more than 13,500 calls, according to an analysis Davis provided the Navajo Nation Law Enforcement Summit last year.

"The animal issue is a regional issue, and animals don't know any borders," Davis said.

Davis said she thinks there have been increased instances of dog aggression because the animals are hungry.

"They have no food or water," she said. "They're having to fend for themselves, and they're fighting for survival."

Davis said another problem leading to aggression is that clustered housing, such as the developments built by the Navajo Housing Authority, does not have tenant agreements in place that require spaying and neutering of dogs. She said that leads to uncontrolled breeding and overpopulation. Davis said some of the dogs learn aggressive pack behavior there.

Davis also has noticed a large number of dangerous dogs. Four days after she was hired in July 2016, a 3-year-old Navajo boy in Arizona was mauled by his relatives’ dogs. More than 2,600 of the calls received by the agency between 2012 and 2016 were either bite cases or in reference to vicious dogs. Another 1,118 calls reported livestock injured by dogs.

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Fortner and Davis both see education as critical to reducing the number of unwanted animals in the county.

“I’m a pet owner,” Fortner said. “I love my dog. The difference is, I take care of my dog.”

Davis has identified education as one of the resources the Navajo Nation needs to help address its unwanted animal population. That education includes responsible pet ownership and education about animal control laws.

About 44 percent of the calls Navajo Nation animal control received between 2012 and 2016 were about unwanted animals, according to the analysis. Between 2014 and 2016, there were more than 1,000 animal-related citations issued in Navajo Nation courts. About 62 percent of the citations were about animals running at large, according to the analysis.

San Juan County is not the only entity struggling with the costs of the Navajo Nation’s strays. McKinley County is also looking for ways to address the influx of strays from the Navajo Nation.

About 67 percent of the animals taken to the Gallup-McKinley Humane Society came from the Navajo Nation last year, according to the Gallup Sun. The newspaper reported in December that the large number of strays left the animal control department with only 34 percent of its budget — $211,000 — remaining for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

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The price tag for those unwanted and/or aggressive animals is expensive for the Navajo Nation, as well as the counties. According to the report Davis gave last year, the Navajo Nation already spends more than $800,000 on animal control each year. That pays for six animal control officers, four kennel officers and Davis' salary. Davis said a large portion of the expense is the mileage racked up on vehicles while officers try to patrol their territory. 

While the tribe does not directly pay for the animals to be housed at the Farmington shelter, Davis said residents of the Navajo Nation who shop in the county and in Farmington provide economic benefits through gross receipts tax collections that offset the price tag for housing the animals.

More: Hundreds of shelter pets found homes last week

The Navajo Nation is not the only entity that does not pay for use of the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter. Stacie Voss, the Farmington Regional Animal Shelter director, said only about 55 percent of the animals at the shelter come from within the Farmington city limits. About 42 percent of the other animals are from San Juan County, including the Navajo Nation. The other animals come from outside the county, outside the state, the town of Kirtland or from the cities of Aztec and Bloomfield.

Farmington absorbs the cost for the animals from outside of the county or state, and for the animals from Aztec and Bloomfield.

Animals found within the city limits of Aztec and Bloomfield should be taken to the Aztec Animal Shelter at 825 Sabena St. Voss said Farmington has been lax in enforcing that requirement, but that will likely change this year.

Bloomfield City Manager Eric Strahl said the city gets a proposal to cover animal shelter costs from Farmington every year. But Aztec Animal Shelter director Tina Roper said the city already pays Aztec approximately $45,000 a year for that service, and Strahl said Bloomfield is not financially capable of paying for animals to be sent to both shelters. Strahl said Bloomfield mailed information last year to its residents telling them to take animals to the Aztec shelter, rather than the Farmington shelter.

More: County approves Farmington animal shelter contract

The county has paid for Kirtland animals in the past, but it has stopped that practice. That change came about because Kirtland, which was an unincorporated community, became a municipality in 2015 and began collecting money from gross receipts taxes that previously went to the county. The gross receipts tax is similar to a sales tax, but it is levied on the seller of products or services. 

Farmington has sent a request to the town of Kirtland for about $25,000, according to Kirtland Mayor Mark Duncan. That total is based on the 131 animals that were taken to the shelter from within Kirtland town limits last year. Duncan said there are only 168 houses located within the town limits of Kirtland.

Duncan, who doubles as the San Juan County treasurer, said the Town Council likely will discuss Farmington's request at a future meeting, but he anticipates the town won't be willing to pay the $25,000. Duncan said there are other places that the money could be spent, such as on veterans.

Duncan said he would be willing to sign a contract giving Farmington the authority to euthanize the animals after a certain number of days.

"Obviously, the people who lost it or dropped it off didn't want it, and neither do we," Duncan said.

While Fortner does not agree with Duncan’s stance, he said the county is facing several economic challenges of its own, including reduced revenue from hold harmless payments. The hold harmless payments were created in 2004 to offset the revenue lost by the state's repeal of the food and medicine tax. The subsidy, which comes from the state, is being phased out over a 15-year period that began in 2013.

He said animal lovers need to be aware of the costs that local governments pay for animal care.

“If people aren’t careful, Mayor Duncan’s ideas are going to become popular,” he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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