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?

As part of the 1998 bond election, Dallas voters overwhelmingly approved a plan to spend $3.5 million to replace the Oak Cliff shelter. Then, former City Manager John Ware figured $3.5 million was plenty of money to build a new shelter (including land acquisition costs). Problem was, Ware never investigated what type of facility the city needed or how much it would cost. His figure was based on the replacement costs of the existing Oak Cliff shelter--a 38-year-old building.

That mistake became apparent last fall, when the city council learned that the shelter they need might cost three times more than planned. City Councilman Alan Walne aptly summed up the dilemma.

"We're going to have to go back to the voters and tell 'em why it is we didn't know what we were talking about before," Walne told the Dallas Observer ("Puppy Ciao" October 25, 2001).

The Dallas City Council could accept its hired experts' advice and ask voters to pay for a new $11 million animal shelter. Or it could cheap out and risk repeating the same mistake it made in 1998. In the meantime, animal control officer Pat Grecco, middle, tries to rescue as many of the Oak Cliff shelter's animals as she can. Below, vet Janet Morris and her assistant, Lori Ramsey, give a stray a shot.
Mark Graham
The Dallas City Council could accept its hired experts' advice and ask voters to pay for a new $11 million animal shelter. Or it could cheap out and risk repeating the same mistake it made in 1998. In the meantime, animal control officer Pat Grecco, middle, tries to rescue as many of the Oak Cliff shelter's animals as she can. Below, vet Janet Morris and her assistant, Lori Ramsey, give a stray a shot.
Samuel Rice, manager of Dallas Animal Control, has begun the process of repairing the problems in his department. Now he says it's time for Dallas residents to do their part.
Mark Graham
Samuel Rice, manager of Dallas Animal Control, has begun the process of repairing the problems in his department. Now he says it's time for Dallas residents to do their part.

Despite the bungling early on, city employees recently have made some sound decisions and, as a result, are now in a better position to determine what type of shelter the department needs.

After the 1998 bond election, James Mongaras, then the director of the city's code compliance department, which includes animal control, did what the city should have done earlier: He hired architect Larry Gates, whose Denver-based firm is widely recognized as one of the nation's best at designing modern animal shelters, to design a shelter.

Using a common formula that calculates the city's future animal population, Gates designed a facility that would triple the number of dog and cat kennels. The additional kennels would absorb the growth and allow staff to keep animals longer, improving their chances of adoption. The new facility would also be constructed with modern amenities like stainless steel finishes and modern air ventilation systems, which reduce the spread of disease among staff and the public--a major problem the HSUS team found at the city's existing facilities.

The original plan also included room for a sterilization clinic and a humane education center, two weapons animal control experts say are needed to wipe out animal overpopulation and, in the long term, reduce the city's operational costs of catching and housing animals.

Members of the local "animal community," a tight-knit collection of zealous animal rescuers that includes members of the Animal Shelter Commission, cheered the plan. But a number of city council members were stunned by the cost. One was Walne, who agrees that a new shelter is needed but favors the smaller one contained in the reduced bond package.

"I still question to what extent is the city responsible for making sure every stray animal gets adopted," Walne says. "There have been significant components added to the shelter. They're all good things, but do you absolutely, positively have to do it?"

The balking council sent city staffers back to the drawing board, where they cut off pieces of the Gates plan. They obediently returned with a cheaper, smaller version of the shelter sans the sterilization clinic, among other amenities.

That was just the first round of retooling. The second came after the HSUS completed its review of animal control. As part of its study, the agency recommended a variety of costly renovations to the Forney Road shelter, built in 1979 and, like the Oak Cliff shelter, outdated.

But the estimated $4.5 million repair job didn't make sense to a group of council members, including Finkelman, Miller and Elba Garcia, who recently toured the facility. To them, a better idea was to close both shelters after the new, larger shelter is completed. That way, the employees and the public would get a better building and the city would save some $265,000 in operating costs through the consolidation.

That proposal is still on the table.

"For me that was a simple decision," Garcia says. "This new facility is way over due. Here we are in the year 2002, ready to go to the next bond package, and we still don't have that facility. It's time for us to fix it. The facilities are just not there."

To Garcia, a rabid supporter of the larger shelter, the type of shelter the city needs is a question of priorities. In this case, she says, some of her colleagues don't want to risk raising the ire of their constituents by asking them for an untimely tax increase. Instead, they seem ready to take the cheaper way out and, in Garcia's view, risk repeating the same mistake the council made in 1998.

To demonstrate her point, Garcia recalls how Gates recently appeared before a council committee that oversees animal control. Garcia says she asked Gates a simple question: Does the city really need to build the bigger shelter or can it make do with less? Gates answered by asking Garcia whether she wanted his honest opinion or a politically correct answer.

"I said, 'Look, let us take care of the politics,'" Garcia says. "We are very good about that around here."


Back at City Hall, Finkelman tells the members of the Animal Shelter Commission to go back to their friends in the private sector and beg them for money. If her colleagues can't muster up the will to put the larger shelter on the bond package, Finkelman says, perhaps the private sector can cover the gap. The commissioners politely wait for her to leave before they lash out.
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