NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - ?
Money generated from a specialty license plate meant to help animals across the state hasn't helped a single cat or dog. Thousands of dollars have been collected from drivers who want to support the Pet Overpopulation Fund, but it's been impossible for the group behind the effort to access any money.
When an adoption happens at the Louisiana SPCA, everyone leaves smiling, and the animal heads home spayed or neutered. "Our goal is to spay neuter as many animals in Southeast Louisiana as possible, and that should drive down the number of strays on the street, animals needing shelters like ours," Ana Zorrilla said. She's the CEO of the Louisiana SPCA.
Veterinarians say spaying and neutering also helps with animal behavior issues like aggression and roaming and even eliminates some reproductive cancers, but that surgery can cost you.
Zorrilla explained their public veterinary hospital performs a high volume of spay neuter surgeries, and because of that, can provide those services at a reduced, more affordable cost.
"Without any kind of grant dollars for cats, it's about $25, and for dogs, it's about $50 or $100 depending on the size of the dog. In a private veterinary clinic, because they don't do as many surgeries in a day, the cost is more so typically it can run anywhere from $100 to about $300," Zorrilla said.
So when she and the SPCA heard about a new state law several years ago, paving the way for an animal-friendly license plate to help defray spay neuter expenses for indigent pet owners, she was thrilled. The cost of the plate was $25, plus regular plate fees. Zorrilla says the SPCA applied for a grant through the Pet Overpopulation Advisory Council, the organization that was supposed to administer money from the sale of the plates.
"This was probably about five years ago was the last time that they had put out a request for those proposals, and we were told that the money was not available and wasn't being dispersed," Zorrilla said.
When the FOX 8 Defenders started digging, we learned the Office of Motor Vehicles had collected more than $31,000 from the sales of animal friendly license plates between 2008 and 2014. But all of these years, that money has stayed in the state Treasury because of the language of the original law.
"We had to change the language and the text of the original bill," Jeff Dorson said. Dorson heads the council designated to hand out money generated from sales of the license plates. He says the way the law was written, the council couldn't access any of the money. While animal advocates couldn't access the money, other state agencies reaped the benefits of those pet plates.
According to state records, the state legislature has moved more than $8,000 from the pet overpopulation fund several times in the last few years. In fiscal year 2008 to 2009, the treasury says more than $1600 was moved from the Pet Overpopulation Fund to the state's Overcollections Fund. In fiscal year 2009 to 2010, $1900 moved to the General Fund, and the biggest chunk came in 2011 and 2012 when more than $4400 was swept from a fund meant to support animal overpopulation in the state and moved to fill a gap in the state's Medical Assistance Trust Fund. So what had generated more than $31,000 in funding from the sales of animal friendly license plates is now down to $23,836.
"We weren't happy at all. I'm sure the public would be outraged to think that this administration would go into this small account that's so desperately needed just to balance their own books," Dorson said.
Dorson and the council went to state Senator J.P. Morrell to make changes to the law that would give the council access to the much needed funds. "With the passage of the legislation, the money is drawn from the Treasury quarterly and put into escrow. Once it's taken out of the Treasury, the legislature no longer has purview to sweep the money," Morrell said.
Dorson says now the money will be directed to rural, outlying areas of the state. "There are 64 parishes.. half of those have no shelter and no animal control services, and we highly doubt if they have low cost spay neuter," Dorson said.
The LA SPCA may not qualify for the grant money, but Ana Zorrilla is hopeful the money will finally be directed to the cause it was intended for. "We just have been frustrated and wanna see that if people are putting money into a spay neuter fund, that it is actually going to and there is some accountability to where that money is going," Zorrilla said.
Dorson said the council plans to be online with a website soon, accepting grant applications, and in March, he expects the first checks to go out.
The FOX 8 Defenders will check back in the spring for an update. In the meantime, Senator Morrell says other causes tied to specialty license plates may be at risk. The money they generate could also end up getting swept to fill budget gaps, especially if the language in the legislation hasn't been amended. Morrell says the legislature may have to make a wholesale effort to protect money attached to causes.
If you have a consumer complaint, call the FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women at 1-888-670-6397 or fill out our online complaint form at www.fox8live.com.
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