Palo Alto's effort to revitalize its aged animal shelter received a big boost Monday night, when the City Council agreed to make more than $3 million in improvements to the facility as part of an agreement with the shelter's proposed new operator, Pets In Need.
By an 8-0 vote, with Adrian Fine absent, the council supported a proposal for staff to conclude its negotiations with the Redwood City-based nonprofit. In doing so, it acceded to Pets In Need's request that the old facility on East Bayshore Road be upgraded, with the costs of the renovations currently estimated at $3.4 million.
Even though the council and Pets In Need ultimately hope to build a brand new shelter, which could cost up to $20 million, both sides conceded on Monday that a fundraising campaign for such a project would take years to complete. In the meantime, Pets In Need is looking for improvements to the building's cramped medical suite and a modular office that could function as a classroom: upgrades that would cost about $1.3 million and that would allow its staff to take over operations in the next few months.
Pets In Need is also looking to install 16 new kennels, which would cost about $2.1 million, though those improvements likely won't be made until after Pets In Need takes charge.
Deputy City Manager Rob De Geus told the council that the city's willingness to support Pets In Need in upgrading the facility is a recognition that the new shelter won't be coming online for some time. He pointed to a recent fundraising study that the city commissioned for Pets In Need, which indicated that the community is likely to raise somewhere between $6 million and $8.8 million, not enough to build the new shelter.
"What that tells us is that we're likely to be operating at the existing shelter for longer than initially expected," De Geus said.
Al Mollica, executive director of Pets In Need, shared that assessment and said both sides should "accept the fact that the Bayshore Road facility will be the community's local animal shelter for many years to come." His nonprofit, which champions the "no-kill" movement, said Pets In Need will "provide robust education, community outreach and volunteer programs, all while staying true to our commitment to never euthanize a healthy or treatable animal."
"We believe the partnership will be good for Palo Alto residents and animals and we are excited to get started," Mollica said.
Despite some reservations about the costs of the needed backups, the council largely shared his excitement.
"There is a chance we can actually improve service here," Vice Mayor Eric Filseth said. "In government, we don't get a lot of opportunities to reduce costs and improve services at the same time."
Councilwoman Karen Holman, a dog owner, enthusiastically made the motion to have staff conclude its negotiations with Pets In Need and to commit to the needed improvements.
"Our animals are not just animals -- they are partners, they are beings that lower our stress levels, they are beings that comfort us when we're not happy, when we're ill," Holman said. "Our animals are incredibly important to us."
Councilman Greg Tanaka's enthusiasm was considerably more muted. He noted that the city hasn't budgeted for the proposed improvement and asked Pets In Need if they can share some of the costs for the needed upgrades.
"There are so many things we want in the city. It's hard for us to say no," Tanaka said. "We say yes to a lot of things. This is another project where we don't know where the money is going to come from."
Mollica noted that the organization is already committed to raise money to pay for its expanded operations.
"We have already got skin in the game from Day One, in terms of us needing to ramp up fundraising to support operations," Mollica said. "To add on top of that $3.4 million in capital improvements while trying to maintain and grow operations in Redwood City is a lot for an organization to accept."
As part of its vote, the council also acceded to Pets In Need's request to take over an expanded area around the shelter -- space that is currently occupied by Anderson Honda (under its lease with the city) and the city's Office of Emergency Services. The city and Pets In Need will negotiate the exact parameters of the shelter's new space in the coming months, as they conclude the negotiations.
Under the proposed agreement, the city would pay Pets In Need about $650,000 annually for taking charge of the animal-shelter operation. Keene noted that the alternative -- having the city continue to operate it as it has for decades -- would cost about $500,000 more annually. The city also has the option of outsourcing its animal operation to another city, though its last attempt to do so fizzled after a community backlash.
Dozens of residents and Pets In Need supporters turned out for the Monday hearing, which council members characterized as the "next-to-last" step in the protracted negotiations process. The two sides signed a letter of intent a year ago, which identifies the need for a new shelter.
Ann Pianetta, board member at the citizens group Friends of the Palo Alto Animal Shelter, told the council that Palo Alto has had an animal shelter since the 1950s and that it should continue to do so.
"Having Pets In Need manage the shelter would be a great benefit to Palo Alto and surrounding cities," Pianetta said.
The council's vote sets the stage for the two sides to complete negotiations and for the nonprofit to take over operations later this year. After the vote, Mollica lauded the council's decision and said the partnership between his nonprofit and the city will "advance the no-kill movement and serve as a national model for humane treatment of animals in public shelters."
"With Palo Alto as our partner, we will save an even greater number of healthy and treatable animals, giving them a second chance at life."