LAS CRUCES - The city missed a deadline to adopt a formal policy of "trap-neuter-return" for its free-roaming feral and unowned cat population, leading the city council to extend the deadline by six months at its Tuesday meeting, after a discussion in which confusion surfaced about how to allocate a budget for the city program and where the program's responsibilties fell.
Assistant City Manager Eric Enriquez claimed that the postponement wasn't the result of a lack of hard work. He claimed city animal control staff, animal shelter staff and members of the city's TNR subcommittee simply "ran out of time."
"Since we failed to meet the deadline the first time, that's why we want to come back to the city council and ask for an extension so that we can regroup and get that plan in order with the resources that are needed," Enriquez said.
But Animal Services Center of the Mesilla Valley Director Clint Thacker seemed to contradict that, telling the council that more work had been done in the past three weeks than at any point since TNR was enacted by ordinance.
In August, the Las Cruces City Council approved of trap-neuter-return, or TNR, as part of its revised animal care ordinance. The ordinance establishes the definition of community cats, defines where they can be released following surgeries or trappings, creates a four-strike policy for repeatedly impounded cats and encourages the registration of community cat caregivers.
TNR is intended to be a more humane strategy for reducing the city's free-roaming cat population than euthanasia.
The ordinance also mandates the council pass a specific TNR policy by a separate resolution "within 120 days of the adoption of the ordinance," which is supposed to include things such as public education components, compliance requirements for community cats and their caregivers, where informational resources will be available and best practices for caring for community cats.
By ordinance, the deadline for the policy was Dec. 14. The council's extension, passed with a 6-0 vote Jan. 18, creates a new deadline of June 14.
Mayor Ken Miyagishima was absent for Tuesday's meeting.
In a December interview, ASCMV Executive Director Clint Thacker told the Sun-News the shelter, which is funded jointly by the city and Doña Ana County, had verbally agreed to perform the surgeries and other services for the unowned cats.
The shelter estimated it had the capacity to perform community cat surgeries while maintaining the same level of service for shelter animals and pets. That thinking was based on the volume of cats being received by city animal control at the time, Thacker said.
Once the ordinance passed, Thacker said it became effective sooner than the shelter had planned. The ASCMV was informed Aug. 20, Thacker recalled to the newspaper, TNR would become effective just seven days later.
"So we're just trying to tread water and do the best we can until we get everything in place that we thought we got three months to do," Thacker told the Sun-News.
But the biggest issue was that the intake for cats needing surgeries far exceeded the shelter's original estimates. Paired with a shortage of veterinarians, the shelter soon could not keep up with demand.
"The intake has just skyrocketed," Thacker told councilors.
In response, the ASCMV ceased the public portion of the program in November, meaning members of the public could no longer drop off trapped community cats at the shelter. People can still call Animal Control or a local rescue organization to bring in trapped cats for surgeries.
The public portion is "a very small number" but it's helped, Thacker said.
The lack of a budget has been a problem. While Thacker acknowledged a budget may not have any effect in raising the number of vets working for the ASCMV, having a budget sooner could have provided the resources for creating educational materials and hiring a TNR coordinator, he told the newspaper.
But Thacker also expressed there has been a lack of direction over how much money should be allocated to animal control versus the ASCMV to carry out the program. He wondered if animal control should be in charge of education, for instance.
Thacker also told the council it wasn't clear if the TNR subcommittee of the city's Animal Care Task Force was supposed to put together a budget or write the policy.
"It came down to, if we don't do it or if they don't do it, then who's going to do it?" Thacker said. "And we were trying to meet that 120-day deadline."
District 6 Councilor Yvonne Flores grilled Thacker and Enriquez about the lack of progress in getting the TNR program developed.
"Say we do vote for the June extension. What steps are being taken, and by whom and how and ... just the details and the technicalities?" Flores said. "We don't want to be going down between now and June and not really developing something and then find that we aren't prepared again.
"It still seems to me that this should have been moving along," Flores said.
With the extension, Enriquez assured Flores the TNR policy and budget requests would be finalized by June 14, if not sooner, since draft policies exist. But increasing the number of veterinarians available to perform surgeries is still out of the his control, he said.
District 4 Councilor Johana Bencomo asked Thacker why concerns about the timeline and staffing were not conveyed to the council in August.
"We wanted to get (the ordinance) passed. So we weren't going to stand up and say 'Hey, but, let's look at this,'" Thacker said. He also said there was confusion about the process for conveying concerns and needs.
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This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Las Cruces City Council extends deadline for TNR policy passage