Dallas has thousands of orphaned animals stuck in the shelter system, and a big corporation promised to help save some of them. Beginning last September, a PetSmart store in north Dallas opened up its doors to the Dallas Animal Services department, housing some of its "adoptable" dogs and cats. Every official involved says that the project, a partnership between PetSmart Charities and Dallas Animal Services, has been great so far.
Except it is taxpayer dollars that are funding much of that charity work, and the money wasn't actually available to Dallas Animal Services yet when they agreed to the project last year.
"The funding for that project never was given to us," by the city, says Jody Jones, the manager of Dallas Animal Services. "So we had a choice to make." Seeing the off-site adoption center as good opportunity, she chose to sign on.
Under the program, there are now four full-time Dallas Animal Services employees that staff the PetSmart adoption center, plus day laborers who are also employed by the city. In total, the off-site adoption center has saved 1300 animals' lives, Jones estimates, and she's asking for $365,300 extra from the city's general fund next year to keep it going.
It's the newer or yet-to-be-funded projects like the PetSmart one that could fall under the axe amid a projected $30 million budget shortfall in the city next year, sparking a public outcry from a vocal group of animal rescue workers who say that more of the city's budget needs to go to animals.
But all departments are facing cuts, not just animal services.
"It is absolute theater," says Councilman Philip Kingston of the public focus on individual departments, as opposed to the bigger picture that the city has been spending too much all over the place.
As budgeting talks progress, all city departments have been asked to submit a proposal of ways they could cut three percent of their costs, a process Kingston says is fairly standard. For animal services, Jones decided to make those potential cuts with the contract workers. There are currently 93 full-time employees at the main Dallas Animal Services shelter, plus an additional 35 part-time independent contractors. Under the savings proposal Jones' department submitted, her shelter could save three percent by cutting its contract employees from 35 down to 17.
The proposal sparked an angry blog post from members of the Dallas Animal Commission. "17 people to feed and care for 650 animals every day!?!? That's absurd," they write, blaming higher-up city officials for the proposed cut.
After that blog post was up, Carol Brewer, an animal rescue worker whose been involved with various charities, launched the "No Budget Cuts to Dallas Animal Services" petition last week, gaining nearly 4,000 signatures so far. She also co-hosted a rally Tuesday night at Lee Harvey's in support of Animal Services.
Other than the three percent cut, however, Animal Services has actually asked for a budget in 2015 that's bigger than this year's budget of just under $8 million. Next year, the department wants $9.6 million, or an additional $1.6 million to cover stuff like the PetSmart project. That additional money has so far been deemed by the city as an "enhancement," a.k.a money that won't be seen as a priority as the Dallas City Council decides what to fund.
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Jones argues that the enhancements have always been necessary, there just haven't been funds for them. Another enhancement, for example, would go to a program that in part funds vaccination for animals as soon as they're brought to the shelter. Jones says that her shelter had already been vaccinating the animals on intake, even though it's not budgeted. Instead, she's been turning to another city agency, the Department of Code Compliance, for financial support.
"We do have to rely heavily," on code, Jones says. "The challenge is we are running such a lean operation here."
As for PetSmart, even though the project wasn't in last year's budget, Chris Watts, a board member on the city's Animal Shelter Commission, says that city staff had promised to include it. "Now, no one from the city seems to remember they agreed to it and [it] is not in the budget," Watts writes via email.
If the city decides to skimp on that money next year, it's not clear what will happen to all of those PetSmart orphans. "We haven't even thought that far ahead," says Steve Pawlowski, a spokesman for PetSmart Charities. "We're just moving forward."