Palo Alto and nonprofit explore ways to fix up cramped shelter

With new animal shelter years away, parties consider near-term improvement to current facility

Cats and kittens up for adoption peer out of their pens at Pets In Need in Redwood City. The nonprofit has been negotiating with the city of Palo Alto to take over operations of the shelter. Weekly file photo by Veronica Weber.

Watch Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind The Headlines."


As Palo Alto prepares to usher in a new era for animal care, city officials are struggling to determine what to do with the animal shelter on East Bayshore Road — a facility that they see as both absolutely crucial and painfully inadequate.

The fate of the city-run animal shelter remains the most glaring wildcard in the city's prolonged negotiations with Pets In Need, the Redwood City-based nonprofit that is poised to take over operations of Palo Alto's animal services. Last August, the city and Pets In Need signed a "letter of intent" that calls for the nonprofit to assume operations at the shelter with the understanding that the two sides will ultimately construct a new, state-of-the-art facility on city land.

The letter, signed by City Manager James Keene and Pets In Need Executive Director Al Mollica, calls the existing shelter "inadequate in size and design to meet the sheltering needs of Palo Alto and its partner agencies," a description that also has been corroborated by a damning 2015 report by the City Auditor's Office. As part of its letter of intent, the city has agreed to make "interim capital improvements" to the current shelter so that Pets In Need could take over this summer.

That timeline has proved grossly optimistic. A year after the letter was approved, the two sides are still struggling to agree on what types of improvements should be made to a facility that everyone agrees needs to be replaced.

The question, which the council is scheduled to debate on Aug. 27, has become trickier as cost estimates have swelled. Palo Alto initially budgeted about $831,000 for the improvements that Pets In Need requested — namely, additional space for its new staff, an improved medical area and more kennels. The nonprofit, however, pegged these improvements at about $1.85 million.

A recent estimate by the city concluded that when one considers design work and other "soft costs," the price tag would actually be about $3.4 million.

City officials acknowledge that some investment is necessary for a facility that had become increasingly costly to run since 2011, when the city of Mountain View departed from its long-standing partnership in the shelter. Though the operation still serves Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, the loss of Mountain View's annual $450,000 contribution raised the shelter's annual cost to about $900,000, according to the audit.

The switch to Pets In Need was intended to address the shelter's failing economics. The letter of intent notes that the city desires a "modern and adequate shelter" while "stabilizing funding and achieving long-term financial sustainability for shelter programs and services." Thus, there is some reluctance among city officials to invest significant funds in the short-term fixes, particularly given the long-term plans to replace it with an expanded facility.

"We'd really like to build a new shelter and that really calls into question how much to put into the existing facility," Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus told the Weekly. "If we're going to invest in existing infrastructure, we want to make sure it'll be there for a long period of time."

De Geus said city staff had two sessions with Pets In Need officials last week to discuss this topic, as well as other outstanding issues. Despite the long negotiation period since the letter of intent, de Geus said he remains confident that an agreement is in sight. The two sides, he said, are now trying to narrow down which improvements Pets In Need requires to begin operations and which can wait until later.

Pets In Need has already pondered that issue, Mollica said. Though the entire shelter needs upgrades, Mollica told the Weekly that the organization has identified three areas that "absolutely need attention": more space for employees, improvements to the medical area and additional kennels.

City officials concur that the shelter is too small to function properly. The 2015 audit noted that one carpeted room in the shelter "serves as an eating area for staff and also as housing for birds, small prey animals such as hamsters and rabbits, and predatory animals such as snakes, which should be housed separately." Mollica said the shelter should be large enough to accommodate 14 to 15 employees (up from the traditional level of 10 to 11) — an expansion that can be facilitated through installation of a modular unit, Mollica said.

In addition, Mollica said his organization would like to have space for its educational programs — a critical means to strengthen the connection between Pets In Need and the community.

"We have a vibrant education program that we run out of our shelter in Redwood City, and we want a similar one in Palo Alto," Mollica said.

De Geus said the city estimated that it would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to provide the modular units and to improve the medical clinic. The other component — adding 16 new kennels to supplement the existing 26 — is expected to cost about $2 million but doesn't have to be installed immediately, de Geus said.

Mollica concurred. Though he maintained that the shelter needs "better kennels and more of them," he noted that that improvement is not as urgent as the other two. Mollica said he understands the city's reluctance to spend money on a facility that will ultimately be replaced. At the same time, he noted that it will be years before the city and Pets In Need make headway on a brand new animal shelter.

"Realistically, we'll be operating out of this shelter for some number of years, not a few weeks or months," Mollica said. "I know you don't want to spend $3 million on a shelter that we're not going to use after six months or so, but that's not going to be the case."

He noted that a fundraising campaign for a new shelter will take about two to three years to ramp up and another two to three to complete. Even if Pets In Need started its campaign tomorrow, Mollica said, the city would realistically be looking at four or five years before the shelter would actually be built.

A new fundraising study that city had commissioned to explore its prospects for a new shelter confirmed that view. Conducted by the form BuidingBlox Consulting, the study assessed the likely ability of Pets In Need and Friends of Palo Alto Animal Services (a volunteer group that supports animal services) to raise money for the new facility, which the city estimates will likely cost between $9 million and $20 million.

The study concluded that a campaign to raise $10 million would have only a 30 percent chance of success. An $8.8 million campaign, meanwhile, would have a 65 percent chance of success, while a $6 million campaign would be 85 percent likely to succeed, according to the study, which was provided to the Weekly.

The study notes that it will take "time and effort to make probably donors aware of PIN and the challenges facing the exiting Palo Alto shelter." It also stresses the importance of having board members — and the city — contribute to the capital campaign. The city's contribution, the report noted, is important to "address some donors' concerns about the extent of Palo Alto's commitment to the project's success."

Mollica said he wasn't particularly surprised with the results of the study. For all of its success in Redwood City, the nonprofit has not had a high profile in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. And this was the first time that potential donors were asked about the fundraising campaign for a new shelter.

"If we spend the next six months or a year or so building closer rapport with the communities and elevating our profile within the community, I have no doubt that the confidence levels will go up and the number of people who are able to contribute will go up," Mollica said.

De Geus agreed. Though the hope is still to build a new shelter, the study underscores the fact that getting to the finish line will take some time.

"I really think they need to get in and start operating and win the hearts and minds of the community and build relationships with all the folks who care about the animal shelter and pets," De Geus said.


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4 people like this
Posted by Frankie
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2018 at 8:51 am

This is a giant waste of money. We should contract with outside agencies to provide the service, such as the county, like everyone else does... Please stop spending my tax money recklessly...

Watch the costs go up and up and up... As City bureaucrats and nonprofit managers spend someone else's money.

2 people like this
Posted by Frankie
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2018 at 9:45 am

PS Weekly-- Where will the millions and millions of dollars come from to actually build this thing? Even if the non-profit raises 6mil, which seems to have a ominous question mark, that leaves a huge gap in the capital expenditure to be filled. New taxes? Cuts to other city services? And are we really supposed to believe that we can build a state-of-the-art facility within a 9 to 20 million dollar budget? That's laughable. What would the impact on ongoing costs be? More context would be greatly appreciated.

To the few council members who understand that money doesn't grow on trees, please know you have the support and votes of Palo Alto's quiet majority!

31 people like this
Posted by just don't get it
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 17, 2018 at 10:44 am

Frankie....who made you the spokesperson for "Palo Alto's quiet majority"??? And, how are they identified???? I do believe there are huge number of locals that do value and treasure our animals and the shelter!!!!

31 people like this
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2018 at 11:01 am

We need to improve and keep the Palo Alto Animal Shelter at its location and partner with Pets in Need, no matter the cost. Surely the City of Palo Alto is rich enough that a few extra tax dollars wouldn't matter in the least.

39 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 17, 2018 at 11:29 am

Online Name is a registered user.

We've spent $40,000,000 on traffic calming. The city knows that funding the animal shelter is the only item polling favorably in their survey on what taxes are acceptable so they keep holding funding hostage.

What's a few dollars for the animal shelter when so many people love their animals vs $40,000,000 on traffic "calming" "improvements" disliked by most of us suffering from traffic?

All the meetings re dog parks, shelters, etc. are widely attended because we DO care and it's one of the few things benefiting residents and our families.

29 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2018 at 11:31 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

Some of us feel this is an important priority. Considering all the other ways the city wastes money -- we should take better care of our animals.

If you want to see a beautiful animal facility, visit the SPCA of Monterey County. It is directly across from the Laguna Seca Raceway.

Web Link

8 people like this
Posted by Cost matters.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 17, 2018 at 11:36 am

Cost matters. is a registered user.

" matter the cost"

I respectfully disagree. Cost is a factor the city should consider with every project. The Animal Shelter should be no different. Cost matters, and all options should be considered in context of budget constraints. Humane treatment of animals is very important, but it is not more important than earthquake-safe fire stations and safe street conditions. I think most people would agree with that.

Some individual Palo Altons are wealthy, but our city (the agency in question here) is struggling with an enormous budget shortfall this year. If you really believe that this community wants and needs a full-blown ("no matter the cost") state-of-the art animal shelter, then you might consider volunteering to reach out to like-minded neighbors to supplement this budget. There is a lot of precedent for this kind of collaboration--the Junior Museum, libraries, etc. Foundations do a lot of work to help build and maintain our beloved community facilities and services.

19 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 17, 2018 at 11:45 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Cost should matter in all things, including spending millions of dollars on City Hall wayfinding systems and Council Chamber "improvements while wanting even more money for more improvements? What's our annual budget for bollards and Botts dots? How much did the study to tell 3,000+ Ross Rd petitioners they were wrong cost?Or $40,000,000 on road "improvements"?

The new Peers dog park cost only $150.000.

Guess who'd I trust to be more economical, to spend our money more wisely and to give us something that has clear value to many of us?

5 people like this
Posted by Frankie
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2018 at 1:20 pm

@Online Name -- You've got your data flipped. There is a small, vocal group supporting the animal shelter project. The independent polling showed that the animal shelter was toward the BOTTOM of the citizens' list of tax worthy projects with only 30% support.

I'm not guessing at what the silent majority thinks. I'm referencing that survey, which Council commissioned and is now is at risk of ignoring, in speaking about what Palo Altoans want.

5 people like this
Posted by Frankie
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2018 at 1:33 pm

@Online Name (again)

I agree completely with your latter point about costs. I'm normally not a fan of CSD, but whoever managd that project should be given budget to replicate it at three or four other locations. A half million could get us three more, which is 1/7 of what pets in need wants for just a temporary shelter before they tear it down and build it fresh. Dog parks yes! This animal shelter thing is off the rails though.

22 people like this
Posted by People Are to Blame
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2018 at 1:41 pm

Irresponsible pet owners and opportunistic breeders are the crux of the problem.

These forsaken animals are just helpless victims of human thoughtlessness & cruelty.

10 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 17, 2018 at 1:42 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Frankie, re the polling data, I'd love to hear more about all the tax polling data. Lots of people don't want any new taxes. Could you show a link to the survey data? Thanks.

Re the "small vocal group," the last dog-related meeting I went to filled the big community meeting room at Mitchell with standing room only on a rainy weeknight. What's the capacity? 500 people?

All but 2 people managing properties for their foreign owners wanted more dog parks within walking distance.

Also scan the posts on Next Door and hardly a day passes when you don't see lots of pet-related posts so maybe the group isn't so small.

4 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 17, 2018 at 1:45 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Frankie, so how do you suggest we get the Animal Shelter the funds it needs? I've never gotten anything from the city although it must have records for all licensed dog owners.

17 people like this
Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on Aug 17, 2018 at 2:41 pm

vmshadle is a registered user.

Societies may be measured by how well they treat their most vulnerable creatures. Domestic animals are our problem because we domesticated them. So let's move ahead with adding more square footage with modular solutions and not panic because we can't fix everything at once.

Last summer I helped reunite a very frail and elderly dog with its family with the direct assistance of the animal shelter and its staff. As any animal lover knows, stuff happens, even with the most conscientious families. (In this case, a yard sale in progress camouflaged the fact that the dog had wandered away from both adults in the household.)

We need the services, so let's find a way to keep an open and creative collective mind as to how to solve the interim problems. There are multiple ways to get to "yes," so let's make sure we don't fall victim to a failure of will in the meantime.

21 people like this
Posted by A
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 17, 2018 at 2:54 pm

The Palo Alto Animal Shelter is in terrible, terrible condition due to the fact that no one wants to improve it. Now we have Pets in Need, a no-kill shelter organization wanting to come in and provide all types of animal services for our city. This means ALL animals, not just cats and dogs. It includes horses, reptiles, birds, wildlife for Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills. Without a shelter, if your animal gets lost, you will have to retrieve it in Burlingame or Santa Clara. And that is IF you can find your pet there!

PIN plans to upgrade this facility so that they can have pet adoptions, classes, and low cost spay and neutering available. There are a lot of dogs in Palo Alto and they all need licensing. That means $$$ for Palo Alto!

Finally, the PAAS is under the Police Department budget and management. When dogs are involved with criminals they have to put them somewhere. This way there is a place for them.

I can't tell you of all the other monies WASTED in Palo Alto on stupid things like bad art, glass in the sidewalk and the Ross Road debaucle. Now that is real waste!

The City Manager needs to finalize the contract with Pets In Need now!!!!!!!!

4 people like this
Posted by NeilsonBuchanan
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 17, 2018 at 5:56 pm

NeilsonBuchanan is a registered user.

We all are missing facts. The FY19-23 budget has just been wrapped up. The amount of cash required exceeds the line items in the operating and capital budgets.

Moving forward rationally is impossible without prioritizing and rescheduling. Staff and Council are responsible. As soon as bids for major projects are opened, the budget transitions from a planning document to a funding document.

I am convinced that Palo Alto "wants" outweigh the cash in the city's treasury and within a few weeks this will create multiple budget realities we face in our personal lives.

Any decision about animal shelter funding must be lined up with overall projects bidding for scarce dollars.

One thing is certain and optimistic....the animal shelter has great potential for leading citizens and children to launch a philanthropic effort to serve common needs of several cities. This takes leadership missing from these postings.

2 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 18, 2018 at 11:18 am

Let's ask the shelter what they do with the pets after 2 weeks.
They told me they put them down. oCgAr

4 people like this
Posted by keep good taste
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2018 at 6:59 pm

Whatever happens don't let the people who designed the Mitchell Park library and the City Hall lobby foist their taste on the animal shelter. Stay away from big shiny open spaces that have no function and cost millions.

Enough from those tasteless show offs. Keep utilitarian functions foremost.

6 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 18, 2018 at 7:37 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

The City's spending a lot of money on the new Children's Zoo so they should be able to find a similar amount for the Animal Shelter.

Web Link

"But even with the giant contribution from the Friends group and its donors, the city will incur increased costs. When the Junior Museum & Zoo closes in late 2017 or so for the two-year construction period, most of the exhibits will be moved to the Cubberley Community Center auditorium (there would not be a zoo at Cubberley). The relocation will cost about $400,000. In addition, the city is preparing to make a contribution of $3.8 million to $5.8 million for a wide range of improvements to Rinconada Park's playground, parking lot and restrooms."

Like this comment
Posted by just don't' get it
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 21, 2018 at 5:51 pm

Palo Alto Animal Services only puts down terminally ill animals or aggressive ones that can't be rehabilitated. They do everything they can, with tremendous success, to get all animals adopted to qualified people. This includes the elderly, the challenged and the ones with special needs!!!! Cut the bad rap on the PAAS...they do an amazing job with what they have available and now on limited staff!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Member
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 24, 2018 at 10:10 am

I have been monitoring the animal intake at the Palo Alto Shelter. There have been no dogs for awhile and very few cats. I am an animal lover and certainly believe in shelters but with two enormous shelters on the Peninsula already (PHS and HSSV) this seems like just a sizeable donation of Palo Alto residents' tax dollars to Pets In Need. I really question the need for this to happen.

Like this comment
Posted by Support Animals
a resident of University South
on Oct 12, 2018 at 3:19 pm

The low intake of animals is due to the decrease in shelter staff...which is due to the budget cuts.

I take pride in my community. But I have been to this shelter and it is not one I can take pride in. It is depressing, worn down and sad. I have been to Pets in Need and PHS and they have bright vibrant shelters where animals actually thrive and are adopted quickly.

The amount of upgrades listed are extremely minimal- I am a contractor and know scope and costs. It seems to me that an up to date medical area and room for more staff to run a great educational and low cost spade and neutering clinic is something that our city would want. Cost and Benefit. This works!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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