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Last-minute agreement would hand entire shelter to Austin Pets Alive

Tuesday, March 6, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

At a crowded meeting last night, the Animal Advisory Commission voted 4-1 to recommend to Council a proposed agreement between the city and rescue group Austin Pets Alive that would allow APA to move all of their current operations to the Town Lake Animal Center site. This comes fast on the heels of the Feb. 21 meeting of the Council Public Health and Human Services committee, at which APA Executive Director Ellen Jefferson informed Council members that APA, which has played a large role in the city’s achieving and maintaining No Kill status, will be losing the lease on its current property on Manchaca Road in May.

Jefferson and APA Board Member Palmer Neuhaus, both commission members, recused themselves from the discussion and the vote.

Though the last-minute compromise proposal, which was apparently brokered by Commissioner Larry Tucker, laid out six specific points that Jefferson and Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith came to an agreement on, Commission Chair David Lundstedt pointed out several times that it is just a “conceptual document” meant to give Council a general idea of what the commission is recommending.

“Don’t worry about specifics,” Lundstedt told his colleagues.

The agreement, if approved, would seem to put APA on a level of power nearly comparable to that of the city’s Animal Services Office, including the power to hire city staff. The first item states that APA will have the power to approve a behaviorist (later changed to a behaviorist or behavior program) the city would then hire (or create). 

The agreement would also set up an APA/city committee to judge whether animals are savable; the city would support APA moving into the entire TLAC facility if Smith certifies that no savable animals are being killed.

If no savable animals are dying, APA can bring in animals from other shelters the following month. If savable animals aren’t all saved, the ability to bring in outside animals will be suspended until compliance is reached.

APA currently has a temporary license agreement with the city to run an overflow adoption site on a portion of the Town Lake site. That agreement lasts though Nov. 10 of this year, with an optional six-month extension. Under the terms of that agreement only animals sent from the Austin Animal Center can be housed on the premises. The proposal Jefferson had originally presented to the city last month would allow APA to house new animals at Town Lake sourced from the Austin shelter and the shelters in Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, and Williamson counties, as well.

That initial proposal sparked a small firestorm. First, Smith wrote a long memo to City Council members March 2 saying such a setup would endanger Austin’s high save rate by introducing competition into the adoption system here, not to mention require Austin taxpayers to pay for the care of extra-municipal animals.

“Allowing APA to change the intended use of TLAC as a desperately needed overflow facility into a housing and adoption center for other communities’ easy-to-adopt animals will needlessly jeopardize out ability to ensure adequate sheltering and permanent homes for our own community’s most vulnerable animals,” Smith wrote.

Jefferson responded to that memo yesterday with a memo of her own, in which she told Council members and all the members of the advisory commission that a homeless APA will irrevocably damage the city’s rescue ability’s.

“There are at least 200 empty dog kennels in the Town Lake Facility, over and above the 60 kennels used for overflow that AAC contracts with APA to use,” Jefferson wrote. “Given Abigail’s statement that AAC has been over-capacity since November, it is important to note that AAC has only used the TLAC site once for an overflow of 26 dogs immediately after the move, which APA ended up caring for and keeping until we adopted them into loving homes.”

At last month’s Health and Human Services meeting, Jefferson told Council members that taking over Town Lake Animal Center would mean “no additional cost to the city and no downtime for Austin Pets Alive.”

Some have disputed Jefferson’s claim. In addition to paying APA $12,000 a month to run the overflow adoption center, the city also pays the site’s utility bills. In December that amount was approximately $6200. Currently, APA uses about one-third of the TLAC facility. Last year, when the TLAC site was running at full capacity, the monthly average utility bill was just over $10,000.

In the end, the commission voted for the idea of the agreement in order to, as Larry Tucker put it, ”just move it forward.” Only Commission Member Emily Phillips voted against the proposal.

“I view this as the city allowing itself to be held hostage by a nonprofit group that is looking for subsidization because they lost their building,” Phillips said. “I don’t understand why we are going to go against what we voted for, what we recommended to Council, what was passed by Council, and that has only been implemented for the last three months. It’s absolutely ridiculous to me.”

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