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California Department of Food and Agriculture
Poor Management Threatens the Success of the Pet Lover’s Specialized License Plate Program

Report Number: 2019-121


The California Department of Food and Agriculture (Food and Agriculture) oversees the Pet Lover’s specialized license plate program (Pet Lover’s program), which provides funding for subsidizing free or low‑cost animal sterilization services through grant funding to eligible entities. From late 2013 through December 2017, the Veterinary Medical Board was responsible for managing the Pet Lover’s program; however, state law transferred oversight responsibility to Food and Agriculture beginning January 1, 2018. This responsibility includes promoting and marketing the program as well as soliciting grant applications, verifying grant applicant eligibility, and awarding grants to fulfill the program’s purpose. Revenue for the Pet Lover’s program comes from the sale or renewal of license plates that commemorate the program. Our audit revealed evidence of poor management of this program that threatens its success. This report draws the following conclusions:

Food and Agriculture Used a Significantly Flawed Selection Process in Awarding $330,000 to Grant Applicants

Food and Agriculture failed to verify grant applicants’ eligibility before making award decisions, resulting in two awards to ineligible entities worth a total of $35,000. Further, Food and Agriculture’s process for evaluating grant applications resulted in questionable scores and award decisions. Instead of ensuring that multiple technical reviewers had scored each application, Food and Agriculture relied entirely on the score of a single reviewer for each application when making its award decisions. Because one reviewer consistently scored applications lower than the other reviewers did, and Food and Agriculture did not always select the highest‑scoring grant applications for grant awards, Food and Agriculture’s process disadvantaged certain applicants.

The Pet Lover’s Program Is at Risk of Failure, but Food and Agriculture Has Not Responded Adequately

Revenues for the Pet Lover’s program have declined since fiscal year 2015–16, and beginning in fiscal year 2018–19, expenditures exceeded revenue, raising concerns about whether the program can continue to effectively fund free or low‑cost animal sterilization services. Despite this decline, Food and Agriculture’s outreach and marketing of the program since January 2018, when it began overseeing the program, have been minimal. Unlike specialized license plate programs that other state agencies administer, Food and Agriculture has not contracted with outside agencies to perform marketing, has not advertised on social media, and has not required grant recipients to use or display promotional items.

Summary of Recommendations

Food and Agriculture should verify that grant applicants are eligible and should have multiple reviewers score each application that progresses to a technical review.

Food and Agriculture should immediately begin using marketing and promotional strategies, such as using social media, to encourage vehicle owners to purchase Pet Lover’s specialized license plates.

By August 2020, Food and Agriculture should contract with an eligible nonprofit organization, as state law allows, to carry out additional marketing and promotional activities for the Pet Lover’s program.

Agency Comments

Food and Agriculture acknowledges that opportunities exist to improve the Pet Lover’s program and stated they would adopt all recommendations where appropriate and consistent with the mission of the program. However, Food and Agriculture expressed concern with characterizations of certain issues within the report.

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