Palo Alto's animal shelter is no longer in danger of closing, but city officials agreed on Tuesday night that it's time to rethink how the city operates the popular but financially draining facility on East Bayshore Road.
The City Council Finance Committee briefly discussed on Tuesday the animal shelter's future and the recent proposal by the Palo Alto Humane Society to help the city expand the facility and add a host of new programs to it.
The committee agreed to have a more robust discussion in February, when staff comes back with more details about the animal-services finances and in April, when the Office of the City Auditor completes its detailed audit of the services.
City Manager James Keene emphasized on Tuesday that the shelter has been losing more money in recent years than the city has been anticipating. In fiscal year 2014, the facility had a net cost of $893,403. In the 2015 budget, the net cost is listed as $910,941. The financial losses intensified in 2012, when Mountain View withdrew from its partnership with the facility. At that time, the city considered shutting down the shelter and outsourcing animal services but scrapped the plan after intense community backlash.
Now that the city is in better financial shape, no one is talking about closing the shelter. But Keene said that it's "still hard to ignore the trend line in the report," which suggests that the shelter isn't doing as well as the council hoped.
"At some point we have to deal with the fact that we have some deficiencies in the existing model," Keene said. "We need a facility that is more effective and more contemporary."
That point will come next April, after the audit is competed and more community engagement takes place. Council members said it's important to hear from residents before determining the level of subsidies the shelter should continue to receive.
Councilwoman Karen Holman said the question goes beyond dollars and cents. If the community decides that it is willing to subsidize animal services, that is something the council should consider.
"Our values should determine how we spend our dollars and not the other way around," Holman said. "Is the community behind supporting a subsidy to the animal shelter? I don't have the answer, but I think it's something we should find out and it should be part of any consideration or any decision we make."
Carole Hyde, executive director of Palo Alto Humane Society, briefly presented a revised proposal for partnering with the city. After offering in October 2013 to help the city build a new, state-of-the-art facility, the organization revised its offer in November.
Now, the proposal calls for expanding the existing shelter and adding various educational and community programs. Hyde said the revised proposal "will have the desired result of turning the shelter into a community center."
"We believe the smaller capital project is cost effective and will make the best use of PAHS's resources and strengths," Hyde said.
Councilman Pat Burt said the city should also explore the potential for bringing new partners into the facility. He agreed that it's time to have a "community-values discussions."
He made a motion directing staff to bring back more information about finances and outreach in February. Committee Chair Marc Berman, Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and Holman all supported it.