Two weeks back we talked to Joey Zapata, the interim assistant city manager who deals with code compliance, about the city's plan to "reorganize" the Dallas Animal Services staff by pink-slipping 53 employees and replacing them with what they're calling "contract," or temporary, workers. Yesterday, in a packed, narrow room at the shelter with a freeway view and a faint, tinny soundtrack of yapping dogs, Zapata, Jimmy Martin (also from code compliance) and new shelter director Jody Jones talked about those changes with the Animal Shelter Commission.
The commission didn't seem thrilled. Neither did the audience.
Zapata began by saying that he understood "change is difficult," but stressed the need to "right-size the organization." That said, the shelter staff is actually not changing size all that much, he said. There are currently 122 employees at the shelter, and there will be 121 next fiscal year. The difference, as we stated before, is that most of the animal keepers, 35 or so, are going to be temps, while 20 more skilled customer service positions will remain full-timers.
The city expects to save around $200,000 with the new staffing model, Zapata said. He promised too that the contract workers would be extensively "trained and screened." He said the change wasn't all about saving money, but also about "scaleability," the ability to easily add more workers when they're needed and cut them loose when they aren't.
Since these budget discussions started in February, current animal shelter employees have had to just wait and see if they'll be on the RIF list. "It was painful to have to put good workers though that kind of wringer and uncertainty," Zapata said. But he added that he hopes the end result will be a staff that's "better scaled to the needs of the shelter."
At one point, commissioner Rebecca Poling told Zapta she was shocked that so many keepers were being replaced. "I was under the impression the animal keepers wouldn't be touched," she told Zapata, who frowned.
"I can't imagine how I could've given y'all that impression," he said.
"Well," Poling responded dryly, "I guess you did say we wouldn't have any reduction in the number of people." That prompted a bout of rather bitter laughter from the audience.
One issue some commissioners had with those non-contract customer service positions, though: They require taking a civil service exam, a requirement that Commissioner Vicki Barcomb called "absolutely ridiculous" for people who are already known to be "good animal services officers."
"I've heard some really good animal keepers haven't passed," commissioner Susan Oakey said. "And if they don't pass, they're out the door, right?"
"We're not quite there yet," Zapata responded. When pressed by commissioners, Zapata said that of the 20 shelter employees who have taken it so far, only eight have passed.
Outgoing chair Skip Trimble encouraged the commission and the audience not to refer to contract workers as "temps." "Give these folks a chance," he said.
The other big change, as we also mentioned briefly before, is that animal cruelty investigation follow-ups are going to be handed off to another organization, which everyone in the room seemed virtually certain was going to be the SPCA. Animal Services will still initially investigate the calls, though, before passing them to the partner organization. This meant another potentially bumpy transition, Zapata acknowledged. "I would I could say it would go like clockwork," he said.
"All this sounds like outsourcing," Barcomb said. "You ever called an 800 number and gotten somebody in India or the Philippines, Joey?"
Zapata thought about that. "No," he said.
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Lastly, night drop boxes, where people leave animals they've found or want to surrender when the shelter isn't open, will no longer be a 24/7 operation. The night drop boxes will be closed and no staff will be at the shelter from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., something several commissioners also found worrying.
"Am I saying this is ideal?" Jones said. "Absolutely not."
While all these changes are underway, the shelter is currently double staffed, with the contract workers and the people they're replacing working together. Zapata said that was the shelter's "biggest issue," right now, working with employees who are "in transition." He asked again for the commission's patience.
"I'm not through with this yet," he promised. "We'll keep adapting it until we get it right. All I want is a chance."