Palo Alto's small and scrappy animal-services operation is preparing for a big change after the City Council approved on Monday night an agreement with Pets In Need, a Redwood City-based nonprofit that will take over the East Bayshore Road facility.
By a unanimous vote, the council officially concluded on Monday a negotiations process that has stretched for more than two years and that will result in Pets In Need running an expanded and modestly renovated facility. The agreement, which the Pets In Need board of directors is expected to approve in December, runs for five years and empowers the no-kill shelter to provide services to residents of Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.
The council vote represents the launch of a new era for Palo Alto Animal Services, a service whose future has been in limbo since 2012, when Mountain View pulled out of its partnership with the city, costing Palo Alto about $400,000 in fees. The city briefly flirted with the idea of closing the shelter and outsourcing the services but quickly abandoned that plan in the face of intense community opposition.
Since then, the problems at the shelter had grown even more acute. A 2015 audit from City Auditor Harriet Richardson highlighted the cramped kennels, the porous flooring and the insufficient space for intakes. Houman Boussina, the auditor who performed the review, concluded that the shelter has "outlived its useful life and does not meet the modern standard of animal care."
With the animal operation's financial outlook dimmed after Mountain View's departure, the city has reduced staffing from about 14 full-time positions to the current level of about 10.5 positions, which includes four animal control officers. Deputy City Manager Rob de Geus said the shelter will have irregular hours over the holiday break because of insufficient staffing.
"Until we get Pets In Need in there, we probably will have some time when it's not open," de Geus said.
The Monday decision is the city's most significant move to date to remedy the shelter's staffing challenges and financial woes. De Geus, who has been leading the negotiations on the city's behalf, said the nonprofit will provide all existing services except one: owner-requested euthanasia. That service, he said, is inconsistent with the nonprofit's designation as a "no-kill shelter."
Under the terms of the five-year contract, the city would pay $3.7 million to Pets In Need, which would take over shelter operations in January. Palo Alto would also kick in $3.4 million for capital improvements to the cramped shelter, including an expanded medical suite, 16 new dog kennels and a modular office and classroom. These improvements are expected to keep the shelter comfortable and functional while Pets In Need spearheads a multiyear campaign to build a new facility.
In approving the new deal, council members repeatedly cited the protracted and at times frustrating nature of the negotiations, which began in September 2016. They also applauded the successful conclusion.
"A healthy city takes care of its animals and a healthy regional takes care of its animals," said Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, who made the motion to accept the contract. "This has been a long time coming but it's going to be worth it."
Under the agreement, the city will remain responsible for animal control, a state-mandated service, while Pets In Need will cover all the other services that the shelter provides, including adoptions, veterinarian care and the spay-and-neuter clinic. City officials believe that customer service will be enhanced under the agreement, thanks to increased operating hours and volunteer opportunities. It will also, however, result in the city laying off five employees at the animal shelter.
Al Mollica, executive director of Pets In Need, lauded the agreement and said his organization is "dedicated to finding every animal a safe and loving home."
"Over the past year, we rescued 900 abused, neglected and at-risk animals," Mollica said in a statement. "With Palo Alto as our partner, we will be able to expand on this life-saving work and serve as national model for the humane treatment of animals in public shelters."