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City hires two deputy officers for animal shelter

Monday, August 13, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

The City of Austin has hired two deputy chief animal services officers to help handle day-to-day operations at the Austin Animal Center. Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith has been without deputies since May, when Ian Hallett left the city to take over the Hillsborough County Shelter in Tampa, Florida. Hallett’s former deputy, Chris Robles, retired in February.

The two new deputies were selected from a pool of 45 applicants and 10 interviewees. Chris Noble, a retired bureau commander with the Austin Police Department, will handle the department’s field services, including dispatch, veterinary services, emergency and disaster response and safety. Troy Walters, the former director of Animal Control for Bastrop County, will take over kennel oversight, customer service, humane education and outreach, and the shelter’s volunteer program. Walters started last week; Noble will begin working Wednesday.

Smith told In Fact Daily that having two deputies on staff will allow her to step back from day-to-day operations and address the larger, more strategic issues facing a department that is trying to maintain a 90 percent live-outcome rate while adjusting to a new, smaller shelter in the middle of summer, any shelter’s busiest season.

“We’re totally out of space,” Smith said Sunday. “The shelter has 52 more animals than I have places to put them. Every cage and crate I have is full. The Humane Society and Austin Pets Alive are full as well.” Austin Pets Alive, a nonprofit group that works to find owners for abandoned pets, recently moved its operations onto the old Town Lake Animal Center site as part of a license agreement with the city.

“The deputies will be a layer between me and the weeds,” Smith said. “I have had eight supervisors and no managers. These deputies will be between me and them. Instead of 14 direct reports, I’ll have four. I can direct the deputies to direct the supervisors to direct the line staff. That will allow me to spend more of my time dealing with the budget, overcrowding, fundraising – more executive responsibilities.” 

The new deputies couldn’t come at a better time. Though the shelter achieved a live-outcome rate of approximately 93 percent last month, the new Levander Loop facility is dangerously overcrowded and understaffed, at least in part because last year’s department budget didn’t account for the Town Lake Animal Center remaining open as an overflow facility. In May, Smith requested 18 new full-time staff in the FY13 budget to address the issue. Last week, city staff recommended enough funding for one half-time staffer instead. 

“Having Troy and Chris here will make everything better,” Smith said. “Things have been very intense here for a year or so. We have a whole new philosophy (no kill) for staff to adapt to in a high-profile and high-pressure environment. Plus we moved locations. And though the move was smooth, the transition has been challenging, and we’ve had constant struggles with the building. Plus we’ve had much higher intake this year than last. We’ve been inundated.

“It’s been crisis mode in terms of all these things going on at same time — a perfect storm of busy season, a new shelter, new programs, and a new license agreement keeping TLAC open.”

But Smith is optimistic that things will get better now that what she calls her “deficit of leadership” has been taken care of and the summer kitten season is coming to an end. Now she can delegate more authority and think about how to maintain the city’s no-kill status for the long term.

“I now have deputies to manage the day-to-day stuff,” said Smith. “I can think about what we’ve learned this season and what things should look like next season, what to put in place to handle capacity issues next year and five years from now. I should be focusing on strategic stuff, taking a 30,000-foot view of the situation to figure out what’s best for the city and the animals. And I’ll be able to do that more now.”

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