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Council committee catches up before new animal shelter audit

Tuesday, August 30, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, City Council Audit and Finance Committee members heard an update on a 2015 audit of the Animal Services Department in preparation for a new audit initiated by City Council in July.

The 2015 audit, which discovered some issues that have yet to be fixed, found that Animal Services lacked an effective process to prioritize community calls, did not have adequate monitoring and safeguarding of medications, and lacked sufficient resources to meet live outcome goals for sheltered pets.

Patrick Johnson, who works in the Office of the City Auditor, explained that the 2015 audit concluded with three recommendations:

  • evaluate kennel shelter operations and implement strategies to ensure compliance with state requirements and best practices
  • establish policies and procedures to ensure information collected is complete and accurate
  • establish policies and procedures to safeguard shelter drug inventories

In 2017, the auditor’s office verified implementation of the last two points, but found that the first recommendation had not been adopted. That’s still the case.

Later, the auditor’s office broke down that recommendation into three more specific points. The first point asked Animal Services to determine the optimum level of staff needed for kennel operations. Johnson said in ensuing years, they had found no evidence that Animal Services had done an evaluation to figure out what kind of staffing it needed. 

The second part of the recommendation, which focused on shelter capacity and animal care, was partially fulfilled by efforts to keep animals out of the shelter and moving away from the Town Lake Animal Center in 2016. However, auditors note that the population of dogs – particularly medium to large dogs – continues to consistently exceed the city’s shelter capacity. 

“This is where we saw the most efforts from Animal Services since 2015,” Johnson said. 

The third part of the recommendation focused on strategies that would allow Animal Services to respond to emergency calls in a timely fashion. While the auditor’s office found that the department has allocated more staff for the task, service call information is often incomplete, and there are still challenges that need to be faced in terms of timely response.

Because of the outstanding issues, auditors consider that the 2015 audit is “still underway” and expect the issues will be addressed in the more comprehensive, forthcoming audit that will be taking place over the next few months.

“Each year, we have asked for additional staff, knowing that we have shortcomings – based on this audit – to our response times and to our kennel care,” Chief Animal Services Officer Don Bland explained.

Bland said the department had asked for 49 additional staff members in the three years he has been in the position, and was granted 7.5 additional positions (six during the most recent budget cycle). As of last week, the department had 12 open positions. 

“We do know that we need significant amount of staff,” he said. “We haven’t done an official HR study of it. But we know, right now, if you look at the standards of care in the industry, we need 32 animal care staff, with the volume we have right now. And we have 21 or 22.”

In order to improve response times, Bland said they would need 20 additional staff members focused on that area. 

Council Member Leslie Pool said she understood that the structure of Animal Services work relied on community support, and was concerned that the department had not made more of an effort in that regard. 

“You prefer to have it as more hired staff, but it looks to me like that has been your focus despite the fact that you haven’t, over the years, gotten the additional staff that you say you need,” Pool said, speaking to Bland. “What I see is a loss of that relationship-building in the community, which has led to some pretty strained circumstances at the shelter for too many dogs in too many crates. Too many dogs not being walked because the people we had relied upon to help with that have left.”

“The relationships have frayed, and I am hoping that the independent audit that’s coming forward will help us identify ways in which we can re-knit together the relationships that we rely upon,” she continued. “We cannot do our Animal Services work without the full support of Austinites. You have to build those relationships. You have to make those groups feel welcome. And I would challenge you and your leadership team to look in that direction.”

In response, Bland said the shelter had “ramped up” volunteer hours, putting them at the level they were pre-pandemic last month

“We’re getting the volunteers back,” he said. “We’re really pleased.”

Bland also pointed out that the state does a yearly evaluation of the shelter and the department also hires a private vet to evaluate the shelter. “Each year, our care for the animals has passed with flying colors and they have annotated that is our staffing that is here doing the work that has made us successful,” he said. He noted that the shelter had been “dinged” for keeping animals in crates due to the space crisis. 

Committee members took no action on the update, and are expected to discuss the upcoming audit at a September meeting. Though separate, that audit will build off of the auditor’s previous findings. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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