For Palo Alto resident Mary Sylvester, the modest animal shelter on East Bayshore Road is "true gem in the community."
For many residents, particularly those who live alone, animals "can often be their family," Sylvester said at Monday night's City Council meeting, during a discussion of the shelter's future.
"And those family members need to be kept front and center in our community's consideration of how we take care of the vulnerable that exist among us," she said.
But for the City Council, whom Sylvester was addressing, the shelter is an obsolete building that costs the city about $850,000 every year. And on Monday night, the council took a step toward addressing this problem when it voted to approve a letter of intent with the nonprofit Pets in Need, with the idea that the organization would take over the shelter's operation from the city in early 2018.
As part of the same 7-1 vote (Mayor Greg Scharff was absent), the council also agreed to spend $60,000 on a study that would evaluate the capacity of a fundraising campaign for a new and larger shelter.
Councilman Cory Wolbach, who voted against the motion, said he was concerned that Pets in Need would reduce intake of animals at the shelter. After his seven colleagues rejected his proposal to add a provision prohibiting a decrease in intakes, he voted against the agreement.
But for everyone else at the dais, the agreement with Pets in Need, which operates a no-kill shelter in Redwood City, is an opportunity to both expand services while shrinking expenses.
Councilman Eric Filseth, who made the motion to approve the agreement, said he was impressed by Pets in Need, an organization that has been operating for 50 years and that he called passionate, energetic and well-organized.
"Our mission as a government is to serve the community and -- aside from the facility issue -- we have an opportunity to increase services to the community without increasing costs and potentially decreasing them somewhat," Filseth said. "We don't get a lot of opportunities like that."
The shelter serves Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills and, like many of its residents, it has been staring at an uncertain future in recent years. Mountain View, a longtime partner, withdrew from the partnership in the facility at 3281 E. Bayshore Road in 2011, a move that ended its annual $400,000 contribution to the facility's operation. In 2015, an audit from the City Auditor's Office called the shelter "outdated and inadequate" and concluded that its financial issues are "unlikely to be resolved if it continues operating solely as a city-managed function without a significant increase in general fund subsidy, donations, and/or revenue-generating contracts."
Under the tentative agreement, Pets in Need would manage the shelter for a fee of $650,000 a year and maintain it with "high quality animal care and affordable medical services, as well as a robust volunteer program and increased public hours," according to a report from the Community Service Department.
The letter of intent also explicitly calls for a new and bigger facility. It calls for the city and Pets in Need to pursue their goals by the nonprofit "assuming sheltering operations in Palo Alto, initially in the current shelter facility, and subsequently in a new and expanded facility that will be constructed on City-owned land in Palo Alto."
"The Parties envision that the Animal Shelter's core programs and services will be enhanced with a strong public-private partnership between the Parties, comprised of excellent communication and mutual understanding," the letter states.
The Monday action was an early step in what Vice Mayor Liz Kniss called a big and important undertaking. Councilwoman Lydia Kou also said she was optimistic about the shelter's transition under Pets in Need.
"I'm kind of encouraged that we're working toward keeping it, and it's time to take it to the next step rather that just letting the facility continue to deteriorate," Kou said.
Now, the biggest wildcard is paying for a new facility, which is expected to cost between $9 million and $20 million, according to staff. The Palo Alto Humane Society and Friends of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter each expressed support for the new agreement and are expected to play a big role in a fundraising campaign for the new facility.
Carole Hyde, president of Palo Alto Humane Society, predicted that the collaboration between the city and Pets in Need has the potential to produce a community center that takes care of local animals and provides education to residents about animal well-being. She said her organization is "ready to help" and predicted that the new shelter would be a "great place for the community to go."
"We believe the idea would be very exciting for the Palo Alto community," Hyde said.
Scottie Zimmerman, a board member at Friends of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter, called the council's new agreement with Pets in Need and commitment of $60,000 for the study "very sensible and logical steps."
The council also favored creating an ad hoc committee of council members who would support the campaign and participate in its events.
Under the agreement, Pets in Need will be developing programmatic and conceptual designs for a new shelter in the coming months and working with the city to prepare an "operations and management services agreement," which the City Council would approve early next year. Pets in Need would take over some time between March and June, around the same time the capital campaign for a new animal shelter would begin.
"Like many things in our town, it takes a long time to move down the track to a resolution of something we want to achieve," City Manager James Keene said on Monday. "This is not different."