With Palo Alto's animal services limping toward an uncertain future, a City Council committee on Tuesday agreed to spend $250,000 to evaluate the next steps for the much maligned but popular operation.
The funding allocation, which was requested by city staff, was one of several big-ticket items that generated a robust debate at the Finance Committee's final budget-review session. While the committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of City Manager James Keene's budget for fiscal year 2016, it did so only after rejecting Keene's requests for sustainability consultants and for a third code-enforcement officer. Another position, a recreation superintendent, only remained in the budget after a 3-1 vote, with committee Chair Greg Schmid and Councilmen Eric Filseth and Greg Scharff supporting it and Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting.
The expenditure for animal services ultimately won support from all four council members, despite the fact that neither the committee nor staff know at this time how the money will be spent. Everyone agreed, however, that major changes are in store for a service that now costs the city about $900,000 annually and that was recently described by the city auditor as "outdated and inadequate to meet modern animal-care standards."
Now, staff is considering several options for the shelter's future. One would be to partner with a regional animal-services nonprofit such as the Palo Alto Humane Society, which would then raise funds and operate the shelter. Another plan would involve a partnership between the city and a local nonprofit, which would then lead the fundraising effort for shelter improvements.
Khashayar Alaee, a senior management analyst, told the committee that staff has been discussing possible partnerships with local and regional groups in recent months and plans to continue to do so in the next fiscal year.
"We want to have very serious conversations with those organizations to say, 'Are you available and ready and willing to enter into an agreement such as the Junior Museum & Zoo has done or Avenidas has done?'" Alaee said. "If these organizations say 'yes' and they give us a business plan and a proposal, the $250,000 will be used very differently than if those organizations say 'no.'"
The committee wasn't entirely satisfied with the open-ended proposal, though committee members agreed that it's important to give staff the flexibility it needs to come up with a new plan for the animal shelter, which in 2012 faced the prospect of imminent closure. The animal shelter's dire financial situation was exacerbated by Mountain View's decision to pull out of the shelter agreement.
While Schmid characterized the action as the council "enthusiastically investing $250,000 in a successful, responsive animal services," Filseth was more skeptical about the allocation sum, observing that "you can get a lot of consulting for $250,000."
Scharff called the allocation a "good first step," but said he was concerned about the prospect of the funds being used to backfill employee salaries. In the end, he agreed to set the money aside even despite the unknowns. He also agreed with Kniss' suggestion that staff provide the council with monthly reports about progress and expenditures.
Kniss observed that the community "is very frustrated at this point with what's going to happen."
"The question has been there for quite a long time," she said "We have moved awfully slowly on this."