Outsourcing of Palo Alto Animal Services division to come at a price

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By Jason Green
Palo Alto Daily News/San Jose Mercury News
May 5, 2012
Read original article at www.mercurynews.com

Palo Alto could save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by contracting out all or part of its Animal Services division, but there would be significant tradeoffs, according to a new report.

The city’s budget office is recommending that the division be outsourced in response to Mountain View’s decision to leave the partnership it has had with Palo Alto for animal services since 1993. Palo Alto still has similar agreements with Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

Mountain View’s departure is expected to blow a $470,000 hole in the division’s annual budget, which was $1.71 million in fiscal year 2011. The Mountain View City Council is set to vote Tuesday on a new contract with the Santa Clara-based Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority.

“The departure of Mountain View from the shared services agreement in (fiscal year) 2012 represents a significant fiscal challenge for the (fiscal year) 2013 budget and future budgets,” Palo Alto police Chief Dennis Burns wrote in a 22-page report released Friday afternoon.

The Palo Alto City Council’s Policy and Services Committee is set to discuss the report and the outsourcing recommendation Thursday.

The city could lower its annual expenditures on animal services to about $500,000 by contracting with the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority, according to the report. Cost savings totaling $619,105 would come largely through the elimination of more than 13 positions.

But the report notes that contractors would likely provide a lower level of service. For instance, the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority offers follow-up on barking dog complaints, but the police department would be tasked with making the first contact. The city’s animal control officers currently respond to all complaints made between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

In addition, residents would lose the ability to surrender their animals free of charge. San Jose, another potential contractor, doesn’t accept them and directs residents to the Humane Society of Silicon Valley, which charges a fee of $160, according to the report. The Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority and Peninsula Humane Society charge $150 and $20, respectively.

Four options that leave the Animal Services division partially intact are also outlined in the report.

Under one scenario, the city could save $270,826 annually by eliminating a supervisor, an animal control officer and a part-time volunteer coordinator. However, the remaining officers would have to be scheduled differently and there would be no back-up in the event of simultaneous calls for service. Illnesses, vacations and family leaves would also leave the city without field coverage.

“With a smaller staff pool to share the burden,” Burns wrote in the report, “the propensity of staff burnout and risk of injury would increase.”

A second option proposes to go one step further and eliminate two animal control officers and an animal services specialist. But an animal control specialist position would be created to provide back-up during critical situations in the field. The report pegged the cost savings at $366,063.
The city also could reduce service to mandated and essential levels, saving $194,034 through the elimination of about four full-time-equivalent positions, including a veterinarian, and costs associated with a spay/neuter clinic, volunteer program and store operated by the division. A part-time or contract veterinarian would be retained to alter animals designated for adoption.

The final scenario calls for scrapping the spay/neuter clinic, but keeping a vaccination program. Again, the city would rely on the services of a contract veterinarian, but without fees from the clinic, which generates about $233,000 in annual revenue, it would be left with a net cost of $17,583.

The report was panned Friday by Save Our Shelter, a grassroots group that has sprung up to keep the division intact. The potential loss of a free surrender option is particularly troubling, said spokesman Luke Stangel. Without one, the group fears more animals will be abandoned.

“What we’re talking about is the level of service dropping way below the value of any cost savings,” he said.

Stangel said the report actually paints a picture of a city department that is running efficiently. Mountain View’s departure alone, he continued, is driving the conversation about outsourcing.

“I think the city should focus on picking up another contract,” said Stangel, pointing to Stanford University as one possibility. “That’s the only hole.”

Carole Hyde, executive director of the Palo Alto Humane Society, agreed that the city should shift gears and look for ways to boost revenue. When the committee meets Thursday, she said she plans to present proposals that would reduce the division’s deficit by $840,000 in fiscal year 2013 and an additional $430,000 by fiscal year 2015.

In a statement, the Palo Alto Humane Society said the city has a duty to its four-footed residents.

“Outsourcing would mark a radical change in the principle that has guided the community for 60 years, namely, that localized animal control services make for ‘safe streets, parks and schools’ for people and their pets,” the statement said. “In addition, outsourcing animal services breaches the moral obligation that the City has to animals entrusted to its care. We do not want to see animals shipped to other jurisdictions and we do not want to see the ‘safe community’ principle abrogated by the City of Palo Alto.”

Email Jason Green at jgreen@dailynewsgroup.com.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: The Policy and Services Committee will discuss a recommendation to outsource the Palo Alto Animal Services division and a report outlining various options.
WHEN: Thursday, at 6 p.m.
WHERE: Council Chambers, City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave.
MORE INFO: View the report at http://tinyurl.com/animalreport