Hard times make for hard choices.

When jobs are lost and family income drops, it can force parents to choose between feeding their kids or their pets. And when property tax income drops and state revenue sharing all but disappears, that can force Washtenaw County to choose between supporting human services or the Humane Society of Huron Valley (HSHV).

It’s with this backdrop that county commissioners voted in November to eliminate their $500,000 annual payment to HSHV. The next two-year budget transfers half that amount–$250,000–to “animal control”–which may or may not be done by the humane society.

“We don’t want to do it, but you have to look at the big picture,” says Rob Turner (R-Chelsea). “We’re having to cut $17 million out of a $100 million budget.” The budget cut payments to outside groups in half, including those providing human services (see “Retiring Champions,” p. 33). “Even the Delonis Center got cut 75 percent,” says Turner, “and that’s one of the most necessary human services organizations in the county.

“All of us would love to hold harmless all these organizations,” continues Turner, “but we can’t do that. We’re cutting everybody, and if we’re going to give someone additional funding, it’s got to come from somebody else. We all care for animals, but we have to balance the needs of human society and the needs of animals.”

That’s not the way Tanya Hilgendorf, the humane society’s executive director, sees it. “We’re not talking about discretionary money that comes out of the general fund but money for a statutory obligation. Animal control is a mandatory service for the county, not a gift to a nonprofit. If we didn’t do it, the county still would have to do it. And it would cost them a heck of a lot more than half a million dollars a year.”

The humane society has had a contract to provide animal control for the county since 1944, “and every year there’s been a conflict,” says Hilgendorf. After she became director in 2005, Hilgendorf led the fight to build the society’s new $8.6 million shelter. The county put in $1 million and let HSHV sell $6.5 million in bonds backed by its credit.

“The deal was we got $1 million to help build the new shelter and we’d get half a million dollars a year for animal control,” explains Hilgendorf. “And we didn’t actually get the half million until last year. But animal control costs more than that anyway, and my donors are underwriting the county’s obligation. This is something my 850 volunteers and 12,000 donors understand better than the county.”

Hilgendorf categorically rejects the argument that it’s a choice between people and animals: “We’re not living in Somalia. We’re living in Washtenaw County. We don’t have to choose, and we can have both.”

No, we can’t, says Barbara Bergman (D-Ann Arbor)–or at least not at the level we used to. “Given a choice between saving dogs or putting food on the tables of families that need food, I’m on the side of people. Their mission and our mandate are different, and we simply can no longer afford half a million dollars a year.”

Bergman agrees that the county and the humane society had a deal for the new shelter, “but that’s a deal, not a contract. Right now, we have a contract [with HSHV] until December 31 at 11:59 p.m. After that, who knows?”