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.
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

Helter Shelter

The rank odor of filth and death can be detected in the parking lot outside the Oak Cliff animal shelter, located on a dead-end street next to the Dallas Zoo. The stench settles into clothes, and it grows stronger inside the building. The employees here have been guilty of failing to keep the place clean, but there's not much they can do to rid themselves of the smell. It is embedded in the concrete floors and worn tiles--porous materials considered appropriate in 1960, when the place was built.

Behind the welcome counter, inside a cramped office, animal control officer Courtney Collins sits at a new computer and quietly updates the day's euthanasia log. The sound of his typing can't be heard over the constant din of barking dogs. So far today, Collins has killed 20 dogs and cats, and it's not even lunchtime.

Last year, the city of Dallas killed more than 22,000 animals here and at its second shelter, on Forney Road in far northeast Dallas. One animal was killed about every six minutes, of every hour, for each day the shelters were open.

The killing is part of the job duties expected of all animal control officers, who rotate onto euthanasia duty twice a week. A starting officer makes about $11 an hour, plus benefits.

The officers react differently to the chore, but most try to distance themselves from it. Officer Pat Grecco, a five-year employee, spends her free time, and her own money, on constructive tasks. Last year Grecco helped save a record number of impounded animals, more than 2,000, by tapping into a network of 300 rescue groups across the country.

"I use my own cell phone to get them transported from point A to point B. So my cell phone can go to $300, $400 in one month alone, not counting the other expenses," Grecco says. "The idea is to get 'em out of here."

Other employees simply grow callous. At least that's what a team of inspectors from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) saw when they visited the city's euthanasia rooms last summer.

"Some staff were observed playing loud music, laughing and talking inside the room while the euthanasia process was being carried out," they reported. "Animals are dragged into the room and shoved into cages with poles. Dogs are tied to cages as others are euthanized and dumped into carts. Some [euthanized] animals...were immediately thrown into the cart with dead animals."

Samuel Rice, who became the director of animal control two years ago, knows some of his employees are unprofessional, but he says it is time Dallas residents understand what they ask of them--especially now, when Dallas City Council members are deciding whether they have the political will to ask voters for a tax increase so the city can build the new shelter Rice needs.

Rice is the man responsible for a department that critics say is stuck in the "catch and kill" mentality of yesteryear. A 30-year veteran of the department, Rice has killed his share of throwaway pets.

"It's a hard thing to do, to destroy life. You can rationalize it, but you can never get away from it," Rice says. "You have dreams."

Rice is a shy man, one loath to make eye contact, but he allows a touch of disgust to enter his voice when he talks about what his employees go through every day. The nightmares aren't the worst part. Unlike the directors of private shelters, Rice says he can't refuse strays, most often the unwanted offspring of animals whose owners are too cheap or ignorant to sterilize.

"They'll come in and say, 'How can you people do these kinds of things?'" Rice says. "We're a city operation. We're supposed to be customer-friendly. But we're not here to accept somebody's guilt trip because they are not responsible pet owners. This is a constant day in and day out situation."

Rice says the city was a leader in animal control circles when he was hired in the 1970s. Dallas was one of the first cities to convert to the use of injections for euthanasia. The city was also at the forefront of developing new animal control laws, which Rice says allowed it to keep its stray animal population and, as a result, the department's caseload in balance.

"At that time our leadership wanted us to be more professional in what we were doing," Rice says. "We were on the cutting edge."

Today, Rice doesn't hesitate to say he agrees with the Humane Society investigators, who in December presented city officials with a 121-page damning critique of Rice's department. After all, Rice was part of the group of city employees and community activists that wanted the HSUS to visit Dallas. Rice calls the process "tough love."

"I knew there would be some things that would come out that I would not be happy with," Rice says. "Even though they were some hard things to look at, those were the kind of things that needed to be brought out."

In general, the HSUS found that everything that could go wrong in an animal control department is going wrong in Dallas. In recent months, Rice has begun correcting the problems the HSUS highlighted, a process he is carrying out with the agency's continued assistance. In addition, the city auditor's office has begun monitoring the department to ensure the changes are implemented.

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.

"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.

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).

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.

"As much as I like Finkelman, I want to strangle her," says commissioner Elaine Munch, who adds that the city council members "should be embarrassed. Ashamed. Outright ashamed."

On this Thursday afternoon, Munch circulates a document that explains why she and her fellow commissioners are so galled by the suggestion that the private sector be expected to bail city council members out of their political dilemma. The document is stunning: For the past two years, the private sector has donated more money to the animal control department than the city itself spends on it. That doesn't include the recent $1.25 million donation, which the city is now in jeopardy of losing if it fails to approve the larger shelter.

"That's the real story here," Brodsky says. "The city is not servicing us properly in this area. We are doing more than the city. We are matching [its] funds today dollar for dollar."

As Brodsky talks, the heads in the room nod in agreement.

"They [council members] keep backing away from this because they don't want to raise taxes," Brodsky says. "This is a funny way to run a city."


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