The council's Policy and Services Committee unanimously voted Thursday to reject the city staff's proposal to close the bustling animal shelter on East Bayshore Road and outsource animal services to another agency. Instead, council members directed staff to come up with other ways to raise revenues and cut costs at the facility.
On Tuesday, the council's Finance Committee also signaled its desire to preserve the shelter, but requested staff return with a plan to reduce costs by $500,000.
The proposal to close the shelter was prompted by Mountain View's decision to end its partnership with the Animal Services Center, going instead with the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority. Mountain View had been contributing $470,000 annually to the Palo Alto facility. David Ramberg, assistant director of Palo Alto's Administrative Services Department, told the policy committee last week that Mountain View's withdrawal "essentially created a $470,000 hole in the General Fund bottom line."
But the city's animal lovers rallied to save the shelter, with online petitions and hundreds of letters to the council. More than 100 animal advocates and volunteers poured into the Council Chambers for the policy-committee meeting. Many in attendance carried signs or wore yellow T-Shirts with the initials "S.O.S," signifying their affiliation with the newly formed grassroots group, "Save Our Shelter."
Perhaps the most influential speakers were members of the Palo Alto Humane Society, a nonprofit group that released its own proposal for cutting costs and raising revenue. The organization offered an alternative that would eliminate 4.25 positions, saving about $430,300 in employee costs. It would include cutting two animal-control positions and reducing administrative staffing. Its other ideas include staffing the shop at Animal Services Center with volunteers and boosting revenues by keeping the spay-and-neuter clinic and the vaccination clinic open on Saturdays.
The nonprofit group has also recommended reaching out to other cities to replace Mountain View (options include Portola Valley, Woodside, Menlo Park and Atherton, all of which get their services from the Peninsula Humane Society through a contract with San Mateo County) and starting a working group that could work with the city staff to address the animal shelter's long-term future.
Carole Hyde, executive director of the Palo Alto Humane Society, said her group does not believe that "trucking animals out of the area to crowded facilities and uncertain fates" constitutes good stewardship. Leanor Delgado, an educator at the organization, also lamented the loss of educational opportunities Palo Alto would experience if the shelter were shuttered.
"Given Palo Alto's often stated strong commitment to quality education, why would the city want to toss aside a locally based, humane education curriculum shared by Palo Alto Animal Services and the Palo Alto Humane Society?" Delgado asked.
The committee sided with the speakers and agreed to put the brakes on the staff recommendation. Members unanimously agreed that the city shouldn't rush into outsourcing animal services. Councilman Greg Schmid called the shelter's budget problems "a tough situation" and said more time is needed to find a solution.
Councilman Larry Klein agreed with those speakers who said eliminating animal services would create other problems, including more stray and feral animals. Many people, he said, would refuse to drive to Milpitas or San Jose to surrender their pets. Outsourcing may work for some city functions, he said, but in this case, the service reduction would be too severe.
"I think our animals are a key part of our community," said Klein, owner of two rescued dogs. "I'm not at all impressed with the idea of outsourcing."
Committee Chair Karen Holman, owner of a dog and a cat, agreed. The animal-services operation, she said, has been an important part of the Palo Alto community for more than 100 years.
"I think we are a healthier, happier community if we can keep the services here," Holman said.
The committee unanimously backed a proposal from Klein, which calls for keeping the shelter open but finding ways to raise about $100,000 in revenues and to cut about $200,000 in expenditures in fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1. The proposal also directs Keene to create a task force that would make further recommendations for raising revenues and cutting costs with the goal of completely closing the budget gap by fiscal year 2016.
The committee's recommendation pleased the audience, prompting applause from the crowded City Hall room. But City Manager James Keene warned that this just means other programs or services would have to be impacted.
"This is democracy at work. It is like a little town meeting," Keene said. "The problem is, we have a different town that shows up each week, depending on what the issue is. We'll have another group with concerns about cuts in police and fire and whatever we do."
At the meeting's conclusion, Councilman Sid Espinosa lauded the Palo Alto Humane Society's proposal.
"Rarely, in my years of service, have I seen an organization come forward with a comprehensive set of ideas like that," Espinosa said. "It was very helpful and I think set us on a very good course of discussion."
Hyde said after the meeting that her group began working on its proposal immediately after staff first floated the idea of outsourcing animal services about six weeks ago. Like many in the audience, she said she was pleased with the committee's decision.
"It just opens a whole new dialogue about finding a creative solution," Hyde told the Weekly.