After saying they paid $1,248 to put a "rogue bunny" into the county animal shelter, Kirkland officials are considering withdrawing from Regional Animal Services of King County.

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What’s it worth to get a stray rabbit or guinea pig off the street?

Not $1,248, say Kirkland City Council members.

Yet that’s what the city says it cost to put a “rogue bunny” into the King County animal shelter in Kent. It was twice as expensive — $2,496 — to house two escaped guinea pigs, by Kirkland’s calculations.

Those numbers don’t include the $379 tab for an animal-control officer to respond to each of the calls.

Although just a fraction of those costs are paid from city funds, the City Council, after a series of flip comments — “We will not stand for rogue guinea pigs in this city!” among them — recently said it wouldn’t renew its contract with Regional Animal Services of King County unless it gets a better deal.

Shoreline and Auburn also have given nonbinding notice that they intend to drop out of a regional system revamped two years ago to improve animal care, increase efficiency and charge cities the actual cost of service. Bellevue also is thinking about dropping out.

County officials say the cost-per-animal figures are misleading because cities aren’t billed separately for each shelter admission and the final tab hasn’t been completed for 2011, when the guinea pigs and rabbit were rounded up. Also, most of that expense is offset by pet-license fees and a county credit.

“They’re not paying $1,000 per animal. They’re paying the net cost,” said Diane Carlson, the county’s regional initiatives director.

If cities leave the county animal-control system to operate their own, the duplication of efforts could make it more difficult to fund quality services, she said.

Kirkland calculated its per-animal cost by dividing the estimated shelter cost by the number of animals sent there. Just over 100 Kirkland animals, mostly cats and dogs, are expected to go to the shelter this year.

Twenty-six of King County’s 39 cities are part of the regional system under contracts that expire at the end of the year. Cities that wish to continue service for the next three years must sign a new contract by July 1.

Hoping to keep cities from leaving the regional system, the county is trying to structure contracts so that cities’ costs don’t increase, Carlson said.

Cost per animal isn’t the whole story.

King County spends an average of $543 per animal brought into its shelter, but spreads those costs out among the cities according to a formula — negotiated two years ago by cities and the county — that’s based half on population, half on the number of animals.

Kirkland’s share this year is calculated at $315,000, but its out-of-pocket payment will be just a fraction of that: an estimated $12,309, after subtracting license revenues and a county “mitigation credit.”

But City Council members grumbled loudly last month when told the cost of simply sheltering the rabbit and guinea pigs, regardless of the money brought in to offset it.

“They put them in the Four Seasons over in Seattle,” quipped one.

“It’s more expensive than the jails,” exclaimed another.

“It’s like a total spa stay?” asked a third.

“Buffing up their claws — sorry,” a city staffer responded.

County officials weren’t amused by the discussion, and Kirkland’s intergovernmental relations manager, Lorrie McKay, said the county has been trying hard to address cities’ concerns.

If Kirkland started its own animal-control operation or joined a possible Bellevue-run operation, McKay told the City Council, the city could pay as little as $160 to shelter an animal at PAWS’ Lynnwood shelter or $225 at the Seattle Humane Society in Bellevue.

Auburn has taken the most decisive steps to break with King County. The city and the newly formed Auburn Valley Humane Society will break ground Tuesday on a city animal shelter.

When the county restructured its contracts with cities two years ago, Mayor Pete Lewis said, Auburn was unhappy at the higher costs but even more upset it couldn’t opt for more comprehensive animal-control service.

“The animal-control agent we had was gone and the officer assigned had a territory which, instead of the 34 square miles of the city, we were notified would be 300 square miles,” Lewis said.

Shoreline also wants its own animal-control officer rather than one shared with eight other cities, city management analyst John Norris said.

King County is moving to offer cities more flexibility in service levels, Carlson said, and it has proposed to meet some of Kirkland’s and Bellevue’s cost concerns by basing rates less on population and more on actual use.

The county’s newly hired animal-services manager, veterinarian and experienced hospital and shelter administrator Gene Mueller, said improved shelter conditions and a euthanasia rate below 15 percent make this “an exciting time for animal welfare in the county.”

Meanwhile, Kirkland Mayor Joan McBride said, “We’re not looking to start a new line of business. This is not something cities want to do, but we will do what we need to do to keep the best possible budget with the best possible outcomes for Kirkland residents and our beloved pets.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com