Seeking shelter for animal services

Tracy Lam/Staff

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The city spent more than $12 million to create Berkeley’s municipal animal shelter — a two-story building glossed in yellow paint featuring a controlled climate, an in-house veterinary clinic and new kennels.

To keep the new shelter functioning smoothly, however, Berkeley Animal Care Services, or BACS, has had to rely increasingly on grants and donations, in what volunteers and supporters have described as a crisis in underfunding.

BACS is a division of the City Manager’s Office and is responsible for taking in all animals found or surrendered in Berkeley, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany — ranging from a lost dog to a dead deer in someone’s driveway. Additionally, it performs animal control services seven days per week for Berkeley and Albany.

The city’s current budget gives animal care services about $45,000 more in funding compared to the previous year, but about $52,000 of that money comes from grants, rather than the city’s general fund. According to shelter volunteers, additional expenses not accounted for by the city’s budget will leave the shelter with a shortfall that must be filled by donations.

“Monetary donations go to a general fund, which means it goes to paying bills for the shelter,” said shelter volunteer Annie Van Nes. “It doesn’t go to the animals themselves, even though their donations are specifically for that, and that is really outrageous.”

Discounting the $52,000 of grant money, a budget analysis prepared by Dianne Sequoia, who sits on the city’s Animal Care Commission but said she was not speaking on behalf of the commission, deems the budget to be $120,176 short of fully funding the shelter’s operational services.

Shelter volunteers say the shortfall stems largely from the additional costs of upkeep and maintenance resulting from the move to the new Dona Spring Memorial Animal Shelter in 2012, a significantly larger facility than the old shelter. City documents also show the shelter had budget concerns as far back as 2003, in the midst of discussion about targeted citywide cuts.

With budget issues compounding, volunteers say the city’s underfunding of the shelter has reached crisis levels. They also fear that if the city doesn’t prioritize animal care funding, tough times are to come — ranging from being understaffed to needing to euthanize adoptable animals that require a surgery the shelter cannot afford.

Although it opted against further increasing the shelter’s budget earlier this summer, Berkeley City Council will review the use of donations toward the shelter’s operating costs and decide whether to approve additional funding at the beginning of next year.

“Already, the shelter is short-staffed,” said Lisa Guerin, co-president of Friends of Berkeley Animal Care Services, an independent nonprofit designed to financially assist the shelter. “Every year it’s a little closer to the bone.”

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Budget breakdown

The shelter budget grew from 2011 to 2013 by a total of $175,480. In fiscal year 2014, however, the council voted to reduce the BACS budget by $47,825 from what it spent the previous year, after which multiple services were reduced, marking the beginning of the shelter’s most recent wave of budget troubles.

Last year, Friends of BACS brought City Council’s attention to what they identified as a $100,000 shortfall in the shelter’s budget. Once the city announced it would partly fill the shortfall with donations, backlash from shelter volunteers led Mayor Tom Bates to suggest finding the money elsewhere, according to Berkeleyside. Instead of donations, the shelter ultimately received $25,000 from extra property tax revenue.

Though the issue was mitigated, the shelter still needed more than an additional $50,000 to cover all expenses, according to a May 5 letter from Friends of BACS to City Council.

Founded in 2012 to raise money for the shelter’s medical facility, Friends of BACS is a nonprofit that helps the shelter when certain services or supplies are cut from BACS funding.

In 2014, when the city terminated the shelter’s contract with Bad Rap — an organization that trains pit bulls and owners — Friends of BACS renewed the contract, Guerin said. In fiscal year 2015, they also donated about $38,000 to the shelter — money that partly went toward filling the discrepancy between what the city budgeted and what medical fees the shelter actually had to cover, according to the May 5 letter.

The letter also stated that during the Animal Care Commission meeting in April, shelter director Kate O’Connor said $47,500 had to be moved from the shelter’s medical account to pay for operating expenses such as phone services. The shelter also pulled from its donations account to keep utility and medical bills paid, the letter said.

“I’m frustrated and angry because the city of Berkeley is refusing to fund basic operational costs, and they’re diverting private donations,” Sequoia said. “It’s being dishonest with the donations.”

According to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko, the shelter “always has been funded overwhelmingly by the city.” Chakko said 97 percent of the shelter’s recently adopted budget comes from the city’s general funds.

The $52,480 in the shelter budget that doesn’t come from the city will come from Maddie’s Fund, a national organization that provides grants for shelter and adoption services, according to Chakko. The grant money will go toward partially funding one year of the city’s contract with Berkeley-East Bay Humane Society.

The contract covers the salary for an in-house registered veterinary technician and part-time veterinarian, according to executive director of Berkeley Humane Jeffrey Zerwekh. City records indicate that contracts between 2012 and 2015 allocated $95,000 per year for medical services, which rose to $111,904 in fiscal year 2016. Zerwekh said the additional $16,904 reflects expected increases in salaries and benefits for staff.

Chakko said the city’s use of Maddie’s Fund in its budget is consistent with the fund’s guidelines. A May 21 letter from Friends of BACS to City Council, however, said the current rate of city funding will leave the shelter’s donations and grants account “completely depleted” by the end of fiscal year 2016.

“BACS is a great resource,” said Berkeley Councilmember Laurie Capitelli. “I don’t know how we got to the point of using donations as funding, but we’ll figure it out probably around January.”

Underfunded and understaffed

A city audit on overtime at the shelter from 2014 reported that despite understaffing, the shelter meets animal care regulations by stretching the responsibilities of animal control officers — normally charged with field services such as finding injured animals and enforcing animal regulations — to those of kennel personnel, who work directly with shelter animals.

Whereas the National Animal Care & Control Association recommends at least 4.25 kennel personnel per 51 animals, the shelter averages 2.71 kennel staff each day.

“The staff are great, but they’re overworked,” Van Nes, who has been volunteering with BACS for the last 15 years, said. “(They) do the best they can with the time they have.”

According to the budget analysis by Sequoia, additional funding to hire at least two or three more staff members is necessary to avoid the diversion of animal control officers to kennel work. The annual cost of another kennel worker, including salary and benefits, is $82,779.20. That would mean the shelter needs a budget increase of at least $165,558.40 to $248,337.60, to accommodate two or three more workers.

The analysis also stated that there has been a 13 percent annual average decrease in monthly field services compared with 2012. Longtime volunteer Patsy Slater said the shelter is “right now failing in field services because we’re down people and overworked.”

Since 2011, there has been an approximate increase of 6 percentage points in the proportion of volunteer work performed at the shelter. According to the Citywide Work Plan for fiscal year 2015, volunteers work 450 hours per week.

“A lot of people are volunteering, and the city is treating the volunteers not as extra, but as baseline services, to provide the status quo,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “One danger is that the volunteers could burn out if they feel they’re being taken advantage of.”

Volunteer responsibilities include assessing new animals, walking dogs and cuddling cats. Volunteers, however, cannot perform field services such as attending to emergencies and deceased animals.

“The volunteers here are very enlightened,” Slater said. “The staff and volunteers are all pieces of the puzzle.”

Private versus public

There are various kinds of shelters, including municipal, private nonprofit and private nonprofit with a government contract.

The East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a private nonprofit funded primarily by donations, which account for 95 percent of its budget, according to Grace Reddy, vice president of development at East Bay SPCA. The remaining 5 percent is made up through fundraising, events and grants.

“When you rely on individual donations, it’s more stable,” Reddy said. “Most of our funding comes from individuals, and so it changes very little because we’re not dependent on a contractor grant.”

Like Berkeley’s animal care services, San Francisco Animal Care & Control and Oakland Animal Services are also municipal shelters that perform both animal control services and sheltering.

According to Virginia Donohue, executive director of San Francisco Animal Care & Control, in her limited history, donation money has not been used toward operational costs. Donohue began her tenure in March and said donations have gone toward things such as vaccines in the past. According to spokesperson Deb Campbell, the shelter has just added staff, and all food is provided for by Pet Food Express.

“It’s always challenging — we have a dozen animal care control officers for the entire city for emergencies,” Campbell said. “There’s always things we can do with more people, but we do OK with what we have.”

In an email, president and CEO of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Jim Tedford said funding for municipal animal care and control programs “is rarely adequate to properly fund this essential service.” Tedford said municipal funding in general is an issue because it is in short supply and must be allocated to so many different departments and programs.

“For many government officials, animal sheltering and animal care & control don’t rank very high in the hierarchy of priorities,” Tedford said in the email. “Shelters provide vital services. … Yet they often get relegated to a back-burner and get whatever resources are left.”

Oakland Animal Services has been facing similar budgetary and understaffing concerns as the Berkeley shelter. The Save Oakland’s Shelter Animals Facebook page shows a campaign was launched by the shelter earlier this year, before the Oakland City Council met in June to adopt a two-year budget for the city.

In a post from March 24, the Facebook page said Oakland Animal Services needed an additional $200,000 for operational costs. In May, more than 350 people filled a form sent to Oakland council members on behalf of the shelter’s funding. After months of campaigning, the council voted to increase funding by about $200,000 annually at their June meeting.

At Berkeley City Council’s June 30 meeting, resident Christina Tworek was among those who spoke on behalf of the shelter’s funding. She said in an interview that she is “very appreciative of the services the shelter offers,” including when BACS rescued a tied-up dog she found at the Berkeley Marina a few years ago.

“They’re not just rescuing animals — they’re rescuing people,” Tworek said.“We have this beautiful new shelter, and it’s not being funded well enough to maintain it and the services adequately.”

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The old shelter stood at 2013 Second St. in West Berkeley.

A better Berkeley shelter

At the end of June, City Council considered but rejected the “Better Berkeley Budget” proposed by councilmembers Max Anderson, Jesse Arreguin and Worthington, which sought to give additional funding to various community programs. The Berkeley Animal Shelter would have received an extra $120,176 annually, exactly matching the shortfall asserted by Sequoia’s analysis.

Arreguin and Worthington cited the existence of extra money in the city’s reserve budget as a funding source for the “Better Berkeley Budget.”

“We can fund these things,” Arreguin said. “We need to make it a priority.”

At the June 30 meeting, strong community concern over the shelter’s funding resulted in a motion to refer the issue to the midyear budget process, at which time the city could vote to provide additional funding. Arreguin said deferring the issue will give the council a better idea of the city’s revenue growth and how much it can afford to allocate.

The budget analysis by Sequoia recommends asking various Berkeley departments to help offset maintenance costs at the shelter. For instance, it suggests that the Public Works Department could perform janitorial services and that city park services could perform landscaping services.

In reference to these recommendations, Chakko said the city “will continue to look for ways to share department resources.”

“We’re always looking for ways to see what’s needed and address those needs,” Chakko said. “We’re looking for more efficiency and what can be done, so things will continue to be evaluated moving forward.”

Guerin, who has been volunteering at the shelter for the past six years, said her wishlist for the shelter includes having a paid adoption counselor and paid behaviorist on staff.

“The shelter has to provide certain services, but it’s also an adoption facility — we’re trying to get them trained and into homes — so I’d like to see more money available for those things,” Guerin said.