As we've mentioned more than once, Dallas Animal Services has been dealing with a few serious unresolved issues, some of them stretching back years: the HVAC system in the shelter doesn't work and apparently never really has, leading to stifling temperatures in the summer months; the shelter and field divisions are still understaffed, after a reduction-in-force process replaced 53 full-time staffers with temporary workers, a move which now appears to be permanent; and until recently, apparently, some of the shelter staff members didn't have chairs.
At each meeting of the Animal Shelter Commission, a few commission members, usually the same ones, express their frustrations with these problems. Sometimes they express their frustrations very loudly, using words like "insane" and "ludicrous". That happened again at yesterday's meeting, when the commission was informed that the HVAC system is still not fixed, and eight animal service officer positions are "frozen" and won't even be advertised until February.
But in the midst of the same nagging problems, shelter manager Jody Jones had a few pieces of very good news. In October of this year, the most recent month for which data is available, the live release rate at the shelter was the highest it has ever been: of the 2,349 animals taken into the shelter that month, 40 percent made it out alive.
Also, they've finally purchased some chairs.
The shouting started early this time, though, when commissioner Bonnie Mathias found out that a citizen who offered to evaluate the shelter's HVAC system for free was never taken up on his offer.
"This is absolutely ludicrous," she told Jimmy Martin, director of Code Compliance (the division Dallas Animal Services is a part of). "We haven't gotten this man in to give us a free look at this system? This is insane."
Martin replied that there's a formal bidding process to go through, for anyone who might like to take a crack at fixing the HVAC system. "He'll have an opportunity to review the system as part of the bids process," he said.
"Jimmy, please, this is insane," Mathias replied. "Who do we need to go through to get this done?"
A few moments later, when Jones presented her manager's report, she was quick to mention some of the better news coming out of the department: DAS has been holding more and more spay/neuter outreach events to help low-income families fix their pets, more than 100 in October alone. Shelter staff, she said, "now have chairs and basic office furniture," and some "additional security factors" have been put into place at the facility, whatever that means. The cold and hot water in the building now run cold and hot when they're supposed to.
In mid-October, the shelter closed the night drop boxes where people used to surrender pets and drop off lost animals after-hours. At the time, we thought that probably wasn't a stellar plan. But Jones said despite some "concerns" about how the system might work, it hasn't led to a drop in numbers at the shelter or an increase in animals being let loose in the surrounding area.
"We've been watching very carefully to see the impact," she said, "We all shared angst about how this would work. But our numbers are same."
In addition, many of the 30 urgent staff vacancies that the department had faced in January have now been filled. But the eight vacant animal services officers positions will probably stay that way for some time. ASOs work in the field, responding to 311 calls from citizens; DAS had to choose between funding those positions and hiring customer service representatives to answer the phones at the shelter. In addition, there are no longer any designated animal cruelty officers in the field, though Jones said the basic ASOs are being trained to handle some cruelty complaints.
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Jonnie England, vice-chair of the commission, called the situation "outrageous," and said the department is still "horribly understaffed."
"We've got to make budget," replied Jones. She didn't sound thrilled about it either. "Our budget is what our budget is." Other commissioners pointed out that the increased emphasis on spaying and neutering should eventually lead to fewer animals on the street and less need for animal services officers. Eventually.
"Over the last year, we've seen amazing progress," Jones told the commissioners. "The results are starting to become clear and documented." She clearly cares about that progress: when she spoke about the improved live release rate, she started to choke up.
"This isn't going to happen overnight," Jones told the commissioners. "But it's a labor of love."