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Animal Advisory Commission and staff battle over “no-kill” plan

Monday, March 1, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

It was a busy week for the Animal Advisory Commission (AAC) and city staff, as they continued to hammer out the details for a plan to make Austin a “no kill” city. After two meetings last week, during which staff presented their recommendations (and their revised recommendations) for an implementation plan to the commission, the AAC and staff were still struggling to find consensus before today’s Health and Human Services Committee meeting.


At Wednesday’s regular AAC meeting, commissioners were surprised to learn that the staff had altered considerably the joint plan they had devised, and that portions commissioners considered vital had been removed.


Those removed items caused an uproar among the commissioners, who thought, as Commissioner Robert Graham pointed out, that staff’s job was to take the plan agreed upon by the AAC, add budget numbers and timelines, and present it to City Council. Instead, Graham and other commissioners argued, staff “went behind closed doors” to come up with their own plan, taking out items that commissioners had long agreed were imperative for a successful “no kill” plan going forward.


The commission’s vision of a no-kill future – under which euthanasia would only be used in cases involving extremely ill or aggressive abandoned, homeless, or lost animals – is predicated on two goals: decreasing animal intake at shelters and increasing live outcomes.


“The four things you rejected,” Commissioner Lisa McClain told staff, “are the things that will get Austin to no-kill.”


Staff removed a recommendation to relocate stray cats back to the communities they come from after spaying or neutering them; an immediate moratorium on the killing of any animal (except for humane reasons or aggression validated by a behaviorist) when there are empty cages or kennels available; a plan to outsource to Austin Pets Alive (APA) the city’s animal adoption program, both off-site and at the city’s future Davenport building; and a recommendation to allow volunteers to work the intake center at the Town Lake Animal Center in order to discuss alternatives to shelter surrender with pet owners.


According to AAC Chair Larry Tucker, all four of these components are essential to reducing animal euthanasia in the city by 90 percent over the next two years, as per a Council directive. The off-site adoption effort, he told In Fact Daily, is particularly vital. “No city has become no-kill without the use of off-site adoptions,” he said.


Staff said they had their reasons for the omissions, however, with Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras telling the commission that “it was our job to take your suggestions and come up with something operational.”


Staff’s main concern had to do with the moratorium and the implementation of an outsourced off-site adoption program. Concerning the moratorium, staff argued, many veterinarians don’t advocate running shelters at maximum capacity because it increases the chances for disease and leaves no space available for possible emergency situations. Under the terms of the moratorium, there would be no space unused.


Tucker said that every successful no-kill shelter in the country has used every inch of space it had available. 


In addition, Lumbreras said that that the outsourcing of the city’s adoption program would require a procurement process – involving bidding and operational procedures – and that staff, therefore, didn’t want to recommend the commission’s request to outsource that work to APA. The city could not go forward with the recommendations without acknowledging the need for an impartial procurement process.


The commission wasn’t convinced, however, and at the end of the Wednesday meeting they voted to instruct staff to return for a special called meeting on Friday with an implementation plan that more adequately represented the desires of the commission and the animal welfare community.


So they did, and on Friday evening the commission once again met with staff, this time for four hours, with a revised plan.


Under that plan, staff recommended increasing the operations and maintenance budget of the Davenport Adoption Center by about $126,000 to allow for more space for animal intake and to outsource the administration of animal adoptions to outside animal groups.


But, Tucker pointed out, what staff didn’t put back in was the need to keep all buildings on the TLAC campus open as a safety net in order to handle what he said would be a 25 percent projected increase in animal intakes at the new shelter. “People will see this fancy, new building,” he told In Fact Daily, “and think that if they drop off their dog or their cat, their pets are going to have a great, comfortable life there. When in fact, as it stands, they will only live there for three days.” He said that until the no-kill system is up and running, all buildings at TLAC need to be used for animal intake so there is plenty of cage space.


Council had instructed those involved with the process that the implementation plan will go into effect this October, at the start of FY 2011, with 90 percent no-kill status to be reached 18 months later. The Davenport facility won’t be open until November 2011, more than a year after the implementation plan is set to go into effect.


Staff also reconsidered the issue of off-site adoptions. In its recommendations, four sites would be outsourced for that purpose, at a cost of $100,000, with the goal of placing 1700 animals per year in homes. It couldn’t, however, recommend outsourcing that work to APA specifically because the procurement process would still be required.


“This isn’t the procurement phase,” said David Lurie, director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services department.” We don’t want to cut off our options concerning who would be doing the adoption work.”


“We should start the solicitation process as soon as possible,” he continued, “so that a contract can be awarded with the new budget on October first. Then those off-site adoption programs could be running by the end of this year.”


Tucker wasn’t sold on the plan, however, telling staff that at the last meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez had chided staff for not having more specific proposals prepared. “Other groups missed the window for this,” Tucker said. “We solicited other groups for this off-site proposal. Only APA made recommendations, so we should recommend them to Council.”


The commission and staff discussed the plan until 10pm, at which time they were asked to leave the building. The commission wasn’t done going through staff’s revised plan, however, and so voted to have commissioners Tucker, Graham, and David Lundstedt continue to compile the commission’s recommendations into staff’s plan before the Health and Human Services Committee meeting today.


Tucker told In Fact Daily that he plans to show the HHS committee all of the items staff removed from the commission’s plan.

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