The care and protection of animals in New Jersey is strengthening, mostly in response to growing public interest and concern.

People who appreciate and dote on their cats and dogs don’t want less fortunate strays and pets to suffer needlessly.

The shift led last month to an announcement by the Cumberland County SPCA that it would shut its Southern Jersey Regional Animal Shelter at year’s end if additional funding isn’t found. The shelter has contracts that expire then with 14 municipalities in the county to provide animal-care services. Last year, the shelter took in 4,683 animals, nearly all dogs and cats.

A July court ruling said the state’s SPCAs must be run as if they were government agencies, meeting state veterinary requirements and with transparent administration and finances. That has added to costs and liabilities, says the head of the Cumberland SPCA.

The Cumberland County Board of Freeholders has taken the lead in seeking a way to ensure that animal shelter services, a necessity, continue uninterrupted.

Currently the county provides the only regular government funding, just $20,000, which the SPCA says covers less than 2 percent of its annual budget. Towns each pay a fee per animal, and other funding comes from donations and grants.

Since the announcement, county representatives have been researching the matter, looking at the finances of the county SPCA and those of the municipalities and considering how other counties handle their animal-sheltering needs.

Atlantic and Cape May counties run their own animal shelters, but the Cumberland freeholder director said his county is trying to avoid having to do that. He figured it would require a five to 10 cent increase in the county tax rate.

County and municipal officials are discussing the shelter options and are expected to make proposals this month and welcome public comment and questions before settling on the path forward.

Complicating the decision for local officials and residents is last month’s scathing state report on the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its enforcement of animal-cruelty laws.

The State Commission of Investigation report said the NJSPCA is a “dysfunctional organization” that has “engaged in and tolerated waste and abuse, conflicts of interest and self-aggrandizement, and has routinely taken a cavalier approach to financial and operational accountability.”

The report called the nonprofit “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and said it fails to respond in a timely manner to cruelty complaints, spends exorbitant sums on legal billings and remains a haven for “wannabe” cops, some of whom believe they have police powers beyond those relating to the authorized animal-cruelty enforcement.

The SCI called for the repeal of statutes authorizing SPCA enforcement of cruelty laws and recommended that local government agencies handle such functions.

This suggests that the future status of SPCAs in the state might change. If so, perhaps that too would affect the Cumberland shelter.

The Cumberland County and municipal officials looking to solve the immediate financial shortfall at the shelter should also consider whether a long-term solution, possibly even a county-operated shelter, would ultimately be more cost-effective.

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