Editorial: An unsustainable animal shelter

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Palo Alto Weekly editorial staff
April 6, 2012
Read the original article at www.paloaltoonline.com

Palo Altans are big pet owners, and the prospect of not having the convenience and top-level service of the city-run Animal Services Center is not a popular one.

But with no apparent interest by neighboring cities or animal shelters to collaborate in continuing a regional facility and with ongoing budget pressures, the city has been pretty much painted into a corner.

Without Mountain View’s $450,000 a year in fees for its share of expenses, the city’s cost will jump from $700,000 to about $1.1 million a year, assuming the remaining partners, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, will not be asked to help make up for the loss of Mountain View.

The poor physical condition of the shelter and the expectation that it would have to pay for facility improvements were big factors in Mountain View’s decision last November to opt out. Mountain View had also asked for the same level of animal services that Palo Alto residents receive, including treatment for stray dogs and administrative hearings for dangerous animals, a request that would have added more costs for the Palo Alto.

City Manager Jim Keene and assistant manager Pam Antil made the case to the council March 26 that the confluence of events makes this the time to strongly consider closing the shelter and consider other uses for the land.

By farming out the city’s animal control operations to the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority in Santa Clara, where Mountain View is going this November, the city could reduce its costs to $500,000 a year, they said, versus the $1.1 million or more for maintaining the current facility.

Aware of the strong support for the shelter in the city, Ms. Antil said the city staff does not take their recommendation to outsource the service lightly.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s not emotional or that we don’t care about the services,” she said.

The city’s presentation reflects the difficulty of operating a relatively small but robust animal services operation today. In San Mateo County, most cities contract with the non-profit Peninsula Humane Society, which benefits from economies of scale and salary and benefit levels that are significantly lower than those of municipal employees.

Preliminary discussions with the Humane Society suggest it is not interested in serving Palo Alto or operating an additional facility, but efforts to pursue this possibility should continue since it would likely be the most convenient alternative for Palo Altans.

Barring an agreement with the Humane Society, the city’s only other obvious option is to follow Mountain View to the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority (SVACA) in Santa Clara.

SVACA operates as a joint powers agency of the participating cities, and it is actively soliciting new partners, including Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, which currently contract with Palo Alto.

Palo Alto currently is seeking proposals from groups interested in taking over and operating the city’s shelter, but staff is not optimistic.

Separate from the policy decision on how to provide animal services to Palo Alto residents is the question of what to do with the 2.4 acre property if the Animal Services Center is closed. The parcel, located just south of the Municipal Services Center along the freeway frontage road, has been discussed as a potential site for one or more automobile dealerships.

Such a conversion to commercial use could generate millions of dollars in sales tax revenues for the city. If a way could be found to relocate the much larger Municipal Services Center, it would open the potential for an auto row that could have a huge impact on city’s financial health in the future.

For now, however, the future of animal services is the urgent problem, and supporters of the current animal shelter should focus their efforts on persuading the Peninsula Humane Society or another group to develop a proposal to operate a local facility somewhere in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto or Menlo Park area. Otherwise, the City Council will have little choice but to join the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, the less appealing but only financially viable alternative.