Helter Shelter

The city's animal control efforts are running wild, but that's not the critters' fault. It's a people problem. The question now is, will Dallas residents pay to fix it?

Whether Rice succeeds remains to be seen. In the meantime, the big question before the Dallas City Council and ultimately Dallas residents is, do they have the will to stomach an untimely tax increase to fund a new shelter and help correct the mess?

Deep in the bowels of Dallas City Hall, inside a conference room next to the parking garage, an uncomfortable silence has settled over the members of the Animal Shelter Commission, a group of citizens who act as watchdogs over animal control. They are listening to Dallas City Councilwoman Lois Finkelman discuss the event that rocked the May 15 city council meeting.

"You're not gonna want to hear it," Finkelman says.

Last year, the city of Dallas killed more than 22,000 animals impounded at its two animal shelters. That's one killed about every six minutes, of every hour, for each day the shelters were open.
Photo by John Walker, courtesy of Tawana Jurek
Last year, the city of Dallas killed more than 22,000 animals impounded at its two animal shelters. That's one killed about every six minutes, of every hour, for each day the shelters were open.

"It" is the news that the city is facing an unexpected $53 million budget shortfall. As a result, council members may have to abandon their plan to present voters with a $633 million bond package stuffed full of funding requests for new projects, including $11.6 million for an animal shelter.

Instead, Finkelman says, they may have to adopt a package half that size--one that could force the city to raise taxes just to avoid laying off 1,100 city employees. The second option includes $7.6 million for a smaller animal shelter--a proposal these commissioners, not to mention the experts the city paid to design the shelter, reject as inadequate.

Until now, the commissioners had thought they had scored a victory that has been years coming. Just days earlier, a private donor promised to give the city $1.25 million on the condition that it finance the larger shelter. The gift was intended to win the support of a few council members who have questioned the cost of the larger facility.

To these commissioners and other shelter advocates, Finkelman's update means one thing: Their efforts to shepherd the city's animal control practices into the 21st century may be another lost cause.

"I'm devastated," says Fred Brodsky, the commission's chairman. "The city needs to get its financial house in order, but it can't do it at the expense of a program that's been chronically under-funded. This is a core program."

If this year's mayoral election--the one that featured victor Laura Miller running around the city filling potholes--is any indication, Dallas voters have demanded that their elected officials improve the city's record of delivering basic services.

Faced with the prospect of layoffs, the pols must now decide what facilities they should ask taxpayers to upgrade in the bond election. No matter which they choose, a tax increase is all but certain. It's a tough choice they'd rather avoid, at least for now: The council is considering delaying the election, which was slated for the fall, for a second time.

Miller has supported the larger facility, and she still believes that construction of a new shelter is a "huge priority." But in light of the budget shortfall, Miller says, she's wondering whether the $11.6 million slated for the larger shelter is excessive.

"It's kind of alarming to think that we're looking at spending [$203] per square foot when people are building houses in Preston Hollow for that amount," she says. For now, Miller says, she's asked city staff for a line-item breakdown of the facility's proposed budget so that she can better determine whether its price tag is appropriate.

When it comes to setting priorities, Dallas has proven itself allergic to the concept of raising taxes to fund basic city services--particularly animal control, a department city management has failed to oversee properly. This much was made clear in December, when the HSUS presented city officials with its report.

During the three-day visit, paid for by the city, the inspectors found significant problems with nearly every aspect of the department's management practices, including some that appeared to violate state and federal laws. They also witnessed practices that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of animals, put city employees at risk of being injured on the job and exposed the city to potential lawsuits.

As a whole, the HSUS described Dallas Animal Control (DAC) as a "ship adrift for years." The report, unique for its detail, is a textbook example of failed city policy that extends far beyond the current political debate over bricks and mortar.

"While the planned construction of a new shelter at Oak Cliff is a move in the right direction, without modernization and improvement of services delivery of DAC, there will be a new building but the same problems DAC is experiencing now," the HSUS reported.

The HSUS advised city officials to provide a "constant level of funding" and oversight of the department if they hope to offer Dallas residents a more humane future. "Otherwise," they said, "the DAC will continue to be the ugly stepchild of Dallas city government."

After dropping her bomb on the members of the Animal Shelter Commission, Finkelman says, she can only hope her colleagues will do the right thing and place the larger shelter on the bond package.

"Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news," Finkelman says. "I wish there was light at the end of the tunnel, but it's going to be a tough couple of months."

How the city's animal shelters wound up back in the bond program is a classic tale of bureaucratic incompetence that Dallas residents have come to expect from City Hall.
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