Coined by San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio in a July 11 press release, "cat tax" was a catchphrase destined to go viral. Even the U.K.'s Daily Mail wrote about what DeMaio described as a "revenue grab" by the city.
But the issue's not as simple as its moniker. Requiring cat owners to vaccinate and register their pets and pay a $25 fee was the last of 10 recommendations in an audit of the city's $9-million animal-services contract with county. Before those recommendations even made it to the five-person Audit Committee (DeMaio's a member), the Mayor's office had already shot down the cat tax.
"If you look at the presentation of this entire audit as a cat tax' it really overshadows the fact that there's $3.2 million worth of findings for taxpayers," Assistant City Auditor Chris Constantin says.
DeMaio failed to mention that in his press release or subsequent press conference.
The audit's main finding is that from 2008 to 2010, the city paid roughly $1.9 million more than it should for animal services due to a cost-allocation formula that emphasizes population over calls for service. Renegotiating the contract and boosting the city's dismally low dog-licensing compliance rate (25.6 percent) could mean an additional $3.2 million for taxpayers, Constantin says.
California's among the minority of states that requires dogs to be licensed and vaccinated, but not cats, though organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and The Humane Society have recommended it be policy. The audit points to an AVMA finding that while rabies among dogs in the U.S. has been decreasing, the percentage of rabid cats is up. Cats are more likely to interact with bats, according to the county's veterinary public health specialist, and terrestrial rabies can spread across the Mexican border.
"[DeMaio] called our claims that there is a health risk alarmist,'" Constantin says. "Pedicabs were unlicensed for a very long time until a tourist was killed by an unlicensed pedicab driver and then, all of a sudden, it becomes so important with such a risk that now we need to require that all pedicab drivers be licensed."
Regarding DeMaio's claim that the "cash-strapped city government" is driving the cat-tax proposal, Constantin says that if the city wanted to, it could implement a no-cost cat-licensing program using the money saved from renegotiating the animal-services contract.
"So if the concern was really we don't want to tax taxpayers any more than what they were paying before, then the council could easily make the decision to require vaccinations and not charge a fee to cat owners if they so choose; they have that choice," Constantin says.
"You can't just wait until you have people who get rabies to say, Oh now we must do something.' You have an opportunity now—something that is supported by national and local medical experts. You have a money source that was identified in your audit to be able to enhance public safety; you can do it now instead of waiting until someone gets hurt."