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Petaluma's interim Police Chief Dan Fish, under orders from the city manager to cut five percent from the police department budget, is taking heat over his proposal to cut two positions in the city's animal control department.

Fish has proposed to allow two police officer positions and one dispatcher job to remain vacant, along with reductions in police overtime allocations and the elimination of two animal control officers. Overall, the proposal would trim about $721,000 from the $14 million police department budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Under the proposed scenario, Fish said, high priority emergency animal control situations would be handled by police officers. Some lower priority calls "may go unanswered or may have to be handled through the animal shelter," he added.

There is no proposal to cut any of the services at the animal shelter which would continue care and adoption functions as usual, Fish said.

But some local animal activists expressed outrage over the proposal, calling the loss of both animal control officers a threat to public safety and to animals in the community.

Sheri Cardo, a former Marin Humane Society public information officer and eight-year veteran of the Petaluma Animal Services Advisory committee, said, "Animal control is as basic a service in Petaluma as calling 911. Animal services, including animal control, touches everyone."

Police officers don't have the specialized training that animal control officers have for dealing with hurt or frightened animals, Cardo said, adding that she feared police would give animal control calls low priority.

Animal control officers handle between 2,000 and 2,500 calls a year and about 900 of those are after hours, Cardo said. Additionally, she said that Petaluma's animal services budget has taken bigger hits over the last three years than the police department budget. There should be three animal control officers, she said, but there are only two. For the shelter to be fully staffed there should be 10 positions and there are only 6.5, according to Cardo.

Susan Simons, coordinator of the shelter's spay and neuter clinic and the chair of the animal services advisory committee, said that "handling animals is very different than handling people," adding that quality animal control services are an important basic service to the community.

Simons suggested the police chief "could cut his own salary or take 10 percent off the top of all the salaries in the police department" to bring the budget in line. "I am sure there are many other perks out there they could do without," Simons said.

Fish said that while no final decision has been made on how to reduce his department's expenses, the city manager has requested more information to evaluate how the proposed cutbacks will impact the community and city operations.

"My recommendations for cuts preserve the core mission to provide law enforcement," Fish said, "which means keeping enough police on the street to respond to emergencies."

Including the proposed cuts for fiscal 2012-13, Fish said he has lost 13 police officers over the past three years.

Noting he is sympathetic to Cardo's concerns, Fish said he's got very few options. "It is about cutting my budget. Jobs are going to be lost somehow, somewhere. There is no good solution to this … there is no way to do this job that makes everybody happy," he said.

One alternative that City Manager Brown said last year was that he would be willing to consider was the idea of outsourcing animal control services or contracting with a non-profit to do the job.

Last summer, Shelter manager Jeff Charter proposed to Brown that the shelter be run by the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation. Charter claimed that the new model would help to save the city about $150,000 per year and improve animal care.

But Brown rejected the proposal, saying that it had some merits, but was "half baked" partly because it removed the salary and benefits packages of city employees at the shelter, and replaced them with less appealing packages.

Brown indicated last August that at some point, he want to reconsider turning over operations to the foundation or to another nonprofit organization, partly because they would be able to seek grants and have fund-raising activities not available to city departments.

But Brown said this week it was not the right time to give those ideas full consideration.

"This is the chief's first pass," said Brown. "It isn't to say it's got legs of its own. There is a whole array of options," he added, and the city may look at a "different service delivery model" in the future.

(Contact Marsha Trent at argus@arguscourier.com)