Palo Alto’s budget woes threaten to close animal shelter

Rags is a 2-year-old terrier mix that was recently adopted from the Palo Alto animal shelter. The shelter is in danger of closing due to the city's budget woes. (Photo courtesy of Palo Alto Animal Services)

Palo Alto’s animal shelter, facing a $450,000 budget shortfall and finding itself no longer financially viable, is in danger of closing unless the city council can find alternative sources of funding to keep the facility open.

The city council had planned to reach a final decision on the closure by June 18, when the council must adopt next year’s budget. But a campaign by local residents to keep the shelter open led the council to postpone a final decision on the closure until late this year, allowing them time to find new funds.

The budget shortfall resulted from Mountain View’s decision to end its contract with the shelter. Mountain View is one of four cities serviced by Palo Alto Animal Services, which last year found homes for more than 500 animals. The organization also spayed, neutered or vaccinated close to 7,000 dogs and cats and responded to more than 4,000 calls for service.

Local residents, concerned about the prospect of the shelter closing, packed two recent city council meetings to protest. At an April 10 meeting, demonstrators gathered outside Palo Alto City Hall holding “S.O.S. Save Our Shelter” signs and appealed to the council to keep the shelter open.

At a Special May 10 meeting called to discuss the shelter, the council’s Policy and Services Committee set up a task force to explore ways to close the shelter’s revenue gap.

The Finance Committee is set to review the issue again tonight.

If the shelter closes, Palo Alto would need to outsource its animal services to the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority in Santa Clara. The city would pay the authority for services like animal pick up, but Palo Alto residents would have to travel to Santa Clara to adopt animals or have them vaccinated, spayed or neutered. Palo Alto would then sell the current shelter space to a private developer, according to city officials.

Beyond losing a low-cost spay and neuter clinic, services Palo Alto residents would lose the ability to surrender animals to the shelter free of charge. The Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority charges at least $150 to take in animals.  Palo Alto could also see increased response times when residents report barking dogs and stray animals or whey they request the removal of dead animals.

City officials reported that response times would go from under an hour to about 10 hours, depending on the demand facing the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority.

“The important issue is that the level of services will drop,” Luke Stangel, head coordinator of the Save Our Shelter movement, told the council at the May 10 meeting. “The quality of service from the Palo Alto shelter is like night and day compared to our surrounding cities.”

Alice Smith, a Palo Alto lawyer, gave a particularly vivid depiction of how outsourcing Palo Alto’s 700 yearly dead animal pick-ups would affect the community.

“That’s going to be 7,000 hours of rotting flesh near public people’s homes,’’ she told the council.

The May 10 meeting was so crowded that chairs had to be brought in from adjoining offices to supplement the council chambers’ usual seating. Nearly two-dozen shelter activists formally addressed the four sitting policy committee members. Every speaker supported the shelter, and most specifically supported the task force and an extended action date.

By the end of the meeting, council members seemed convinced that outsourcing was not a viable option and suggested that a way may be found to keep the shelter open but with reduced services.

“In dollars and cents it might work out,” said Council Member Larry Klein. “But what’s not included is a dramatic reduction in services.”

Most of the financial solutions the committee discussed came from a Palo Alto Humane Society report, which proposed setting up the task force, suggestions for staffing cuts, and revenue generation that would include partnerships with nearby cities.

“Rarely have I seen an organization come forward with a comprehensive set of ideas like this,” said Council Member Sid Espinosa.

While the city council is forced to concentrate on the shelter’s costs and its drag on the budget, for many residents the animal shelter is an emotional issue that goes well beyond the balance sheet.

Fifth grader Katarina put it plainly: “If you close the shelter, you are killing the chance that many adorable animals will find their home.”

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2 thoughts on “Palo Alto’s budget woes threaten to close animal shelter”

  1. Alameda managed to keep its shelter open, in part from a city-volunteer partnership that helped close the budget gap.

    The alternative is many, many animals will die.

  2. Scottie Zimmerman

    I attended the Finance Committee meeting at Palo Alto’s City Hall this evening (Tues, May15, 2012). Well done on all sides! I am a volunteer at the animal shelter, and I admit to a pro-shelter bias. The pleasant surprise was that all the people who spoke were FAIR. Staff members James Keene and Pam Antil have a lot of information in their heads and clearly answered a number of detailed questions from the Council Members (Chair Nancy Shepherd, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, Gail Price, and Patrick Burt). In addition, members of the public were given a chance to express their opinions and offer a variety of suggestions.

    After attending two committee meetings at City Hall this week, I am impressed by the quality, intelligence, and character of the City Council and the staff. It is obvious that they have a tough job to do, and they work long hours doing it. Palo Alto can be proud!

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