Maybe right year for cat controlBy Steve Estes
It’s been about six years now that Monroe County has known it will have to find a way to address the issue of free-roaming cats on Big Pine and No Name Key.
And it’s been about six years the county has ignored that issue.
During the early 2000s, the county, the State Departments of Community Affairs and Transportation worked on a deal with the US Fish and Wildlife Service aimed at managing growth on Big Pine and No Name Key to reduce impact on the endangered species, particularly Key Deer and Lower Keys Marsh Rabbits, that call the islands home.
Part of that deal was supposed to be an agreement by the county to initiate a feral cat trapping program to reduce the number of domestic predators on the islands that could impact the slow-moving, nocturnal rabbit.
Language mandating that program apparently did not make it into the final documents the groups signed, and the county has hung its hat on that oversight for half a decade as a reason not to spend the money to implement a feral cat trapping program.
County officials had a golden opportunity to implement just such a program this year when it was forced to hire a new animal control contractor for the Middle Keys, but left a program out of the eventual scope of services, instead just asking bidders to outline how they might conduct such a program and never mandating implementation.
Cost to implement a trapping program, both in manpower and care for trapped animals, has always been one of the stumbling blocks to the county establishing the program.
In the middle 200s, when reserves were being tapped all-too-frequently to balance budgets and then the national, state and local economy tanked on the backs of the bursting housing bubble, that argument carried a good deal of weight.
But that argument becomes weaker with each passing month.
Last budget year, the county was able to lower many property taxes, the fund from which animal control is paid, while still putting about $6 million back into its reserve coffers. That’s a move that made most of us more comfortable.
But that high-dollar item isn’t part of this year’s budget, and even though the property tax rate is proposed to be down again and collections are anticipated to be $3 million less, the county staff has still managed to put some niceties back into its budget proposal.
Staff has recommended nearly $500,000 to restore lost library days and hours. It has recommended $250,000 for the renovation of Sugarloaf Fire Station, and is setting aside $250,000 for outside legal fees to fight a growth management mandate from USFWS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that could put the county on the hook for over $1 million in the next three years.
Those are all good moves and probably necessary.
Staff also submitted an across-the-board five percent salary hike for non-union employees. All of that was recommended and estimated spending still came in more than $3 million under last year.
This might have been the year to throw a one-time, multi-year contract at someone to initiate and maintain a feral-cat trapping program. The cost probably would have been lower than legal fees, and definitely lower than restoring library hours.
And the organization to partner with is ready made. The National Key Deer Refuge is embarking on its own trapping program in the coming months, but it is limited to actions only on federal property.
An agreement to piggy-back on that operation, since the refuge will be doing all of the data collection activities anyway, would be a simple, cheap and probably effective way for the county to meet its obligations. It night even get by with no manpower costs, the most hefty dollar item in any program.
By giving the refuge permission to expand its reach to county-controlled lands, which is pretty much everything the federal government doesn’t own both public and private, and offering a one time stipend, the refuge might well be able to fashion a program that meets the spirit of the old agreement, even if implementation isn’t spelled out.
USFWS has thus far not pushed the cat trapping issue, but it can, during any annual report on the HCP, ask for such a program.
Whether that would constitute a legal amendment is something for the attorneys to work out, but our guess is that both sides would profit from, and therefore buy into, such a plan.
It’s fairly certain that the budget proposal with five-percent, across-the-board pay raises isn’t going to pass the Board of County Commissioners. We hope those who haven’t gotten increases, and are near the bottom of the rung in pay scale will get something. But what isn’t passed out that way could well be diverted into cat trapping, and nothing would change with this year’s tax rates or overall spending projections.
Because protection of endangered species is partly the county’s mission, and the overriding mission of the refuge, implementing feral cat trapping is the right thing to do and the time may never be more right to do the right thing in this instance.