By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - Rather than euthanize unwanted cats and dogs, politicians in Florida's Miami-Dade County are proposing a special property tax that would pay for saving the animals for possible adoption.
Lawmakers gave initial approval this week to a plan that would raise $20 million annually for the pet fund, amounting to about $20 per homeowner per year.
The money would be used to fund a variety of programs to make the county a "no kill" zone, where at least 90 percent of abandoned animals would be protected until new homes are found. Last year the county euthanized almost 12,000 animals.
Each year, about 8 million stray and unwanted animals are taken in by shelters across the United States, with almost half being euthanized when homes can't be found for them, according to the American Humane Association.
The Miami-Dade County plan would include expanding free and low-cost spay and neutering services to reduce the homeless population on the streets, adding veterinarians and nurses to the county's Animal Services Department and hosting more adoption events to find homes for stray dogs and cats.
The proposal could be finalized later this summer when the county commission sets its budget for the coming fiscal year.
Creating or expanding taxes to bolster animal services is uncommon, according to Nathan Winograd, director of the California-based No Kill Advocacy Center.
"There are communities that found a way to do it through the existing budget," he said. Most cities' animal services departments are funded through a combination of private fundraising, general fund taxes and pet license fees.
In 2006 Washoe County, Nevada, which includes Reno, opened an animal shelter after voters approved a $10.7 million bond issue, along with a three-cent property tax increase to operate it.
Miami-Dade's plan doesn't include new shelters, but it could use some of the added money to provide grants to non-profit organizations that work with stray pets and potential owners.
Sixty-five percent of Miami-Dade voters - about 500,000 - supported increasing property taxes in a November 2012 non-binding vote.
Miami's overcrowded shelters take in nearly 40,000 animals annually while the total pet population is estimated at more than 400,000. The county is Florida's largest, home to 2.6 million human residents, including the city of Miami.
In 2012, some 33,000 animals were received at Miami area shelters with 11,900 euthanized and 7,300 adopted, said Luis Salgado, spokesman for the county's Animal Services Department.
"Our goal is to save as many animals as we can, sometimes we have two in a cage," Salgado said. "If in one month we receive 600 animals, obviously we don't have room. The reality is some are going to have to be euthanized for space."
A top official with animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said she wished more communities would try the approach Miami-Dade is considering.
"This is probably one of the first times I've seen a jurisdiction, especially one the size of Miami, tackle what's really a nationwide crisis," said Daphna Nachminovitch, a senior vice president at Norfolk, Virginia-based PETA.
Despite the broad support, some county commissioners have raised concerns about whether the money should be dedicated to other needy groups such as the elderly or homeless.
Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz, the plan's sponsor, defended the pet adoption proposal at a public meeting this week. "This is a separate issue from children and the elderly (where) every year there is a crisis," he said.
(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)