Berkeley animal shelter budget raises questions

The animal shelter's grand opening celebration takes place at 1 Bolivar Drive on Saturday. Scroll to the bottom of the story for details. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Berkeley’s new municipal animal shelter, which opened in early 2013. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Community supporters of Berkeley’s municipal animal shelter have been raising alarm bells about the shelter’s budget for the coming fiscal year — and their concerns about the city’s lack of budgeting transparency are broadly shared.

The proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts in July is $1.69 million, which is comparable to what the shelter ultimately got in the fiscal year that ends this month, City Manager Christine Daniel told city officials by email May 27.

But shelter supporters say that amount has not been enough to cover operating costs, and fear the shelter may be forced to close one day a week or more as a result. They say the shelter has struggled to cover increased utility costs in its new, larger space, which has a sophisticated air filtration system to cut down on the spread of diseases. Supporters say, too, that services the city used to pay for, including a spay-and-neuter program for low-income residents as well as training for pit bull owners, now must be funded through community donations.

The budget has come before council and the public several times since May 20, and is expected to be approved next week.


According to city spokesman Matthai Chakko, a detailed budget that would show utility costs for the Dona Spring Municipal Animal Shelter is not available: “The budget doesn’t have line items to that degree,” he said via email. Chakko said animal shelter director Kate O’Connor was not available last week for an interview. He said the shelter is “fully funded,” but did not respond to questions about whether the shelter might have to reduce its hours. (The facility is currently open seven days a week.)

The lack of transparency has been a bone of contention for shelter supporters, particularly those who worked to help build the new shelter and fund some of its services.

In May, the city announced plans, for the first time, to allocate $25,000 in expected donations from the public to the shelter to help pay for basic operating costs related to medical services and supplies. (In the past, donations have been used for animals that needed special care, for example, as opposed to routine procedures.) Community members balked. They told city officials that doing that would run counter to donor expectations, and that shelter staff should be able to retain control of how that money would be spent. Council members agreed, and told the city manager to find another way to come up with the money.

Last week, Mayor Tom Bates told fellow council members the city had brought in more than expected in property tax revenues, and suggested that $25,000 of the windfall should go toward the animal shelter to bridge the gap. His proposal, which also includes allocations for the Mobile Crisis Team, the Berkeley Art Center and two education-related initiatives, among other recipients, is expected to be voted on as part of the upcoming budget adoption process for the coming fiscal year.

The shelter's new digs provide a safer, calmer atmosphere for animals, supporters say. Photo: Nancy Rubin
The shelter’s new digs provide a safer, calmer atmosphere for animals, supporters say. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Supporters: “Confusion” still swirls around animal shelter budget

While no cuts are expected in the shelter’s budget, its supporters say they remain worried about what the future might bring. They have said they believe funds directed toward the shelter by the city are “inadequate.”

Lisa Guerin, who is on the board of the Friends of Berkeley Animal Care Services, said budget concerns related to the shelter initially came up during meetings with shelter staff. (The group is an all-volunteer organization created in 2011 to help raise money for shelter needs that the city has not been able to afford.)

Guerin said it has been difficult to get a true understanding of the animal shelter budget due to limited information from the city.

“There still seems to be this confusion about the numbers,” she said.

Guerin said that, based on meetings with shelter staff, utility costs at the new shelter come in about $30,000 short.

“The new shelter facility costs more to run than the old one did,” she told Berkeley City Council members at a recent meeting. “The new shelter is larger, has an elevator, four public restrooms, a security system, and more that the old shelter lacked. The utility bills and other operating expenses are significantly higher.”

She said those differences are the driving force leading to a budget shortfall of what she said is more than $100,000.

Guerin told city officials that, in the past year, the Friends had “picked up the cost” of training classes and emergency medical equipment, paid for a program to get neonatal kittens into foster care, and bought basic equipment, such as animal beds, collars, harnesses, cat toys and towers, and more.

“These expenses would have been paid by the shelter, but that money had to be redirected — along with donations collected by the shelter itself — to keep the lights on, the water running and the building clean,” she said. “Dog training and neonatal kittens, we can fundraise for that. It’s the janitorial and the PG&E and the water bill and the sprinkler system and the fire safety — the day to day costs of running a shelter — that the city needs to pick up.”

At the most recent council meeting, June 10, shelter supporters continued to express frustration about the lack of information.

“We’ve been kind of trying to make these guesses and I don’t understand why there’s no transparency around the city animal budget,” said Eleni Sotos, president of the Friends group. “It’s made it really challenging for us.”

About 11 members of the public spoke out at the May 20 council meeting to express concerns about their belief that the shelter is inadequately funded and staffed, and asked the city to support the facility better.

Despite repeated requests, no information has been provided by the city regarding utility costs in the old shelter or the new.

A 2003 document about the old animal shelter indicated that, at that time, about $761,000 was spent annually on personnel and about $411,000 on “non-personnel” costs, which presumably included utilities and other expenses: an operating budget of nearly $1.2 million. At that time, the shelter had 12 full-time employees and one part-timer. As of fiscal year 2012, the last full operating year of the old shelter, the city spent $1.5 million on it, according to city spokesman Chakko.

According to the proposed budget for 2014-15, the shelter will have 10 full-time employees, no change from the current year. While staffing has dropped, associated costs have risen significantly. The most recent data available indicate that total personnel costs for the shelter in 2013 were nearly $1.19 million. As noted above, the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is $1.69 million, which would leave about $500,000 available for non-personnel costs.

A view down an aisle through the chain-link kennels at the old animal shelter on moving day in November 2012. See more photographs from the move. Photo: Nancy Rubin
A view down an aisle through the chain-link kennels at the old animal shelter. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Cal report: City budget process has “significant shortcomings”

Community members have questioned the public process surrounding the overall city budget, and say the city needs to do a better job providing information.

“Having to have the budget manager come back and explain some of the funding for the animal shelter that wasn’t clear, and even then having open questions by council members shouldn’t be happening,”  Jacquelyn McCormick, who is running for a District 8 council seat, said earlier this month. She is also a long-time member of Berkeley Budget SOS, a group that is critical of some of the city’s budget priorities. “In my years of trying to review the budget, there just isn’t transparency and clarity around the budget process. I know it’s high level, and I get that, but you can’t connect the dots.”

She said the city should create a fiscal action plan, involving stakeholders such as the overall community, city leadership, labor unions, social service organizations and more, to come up with the big picture for where Berkeley wants to be financially in 20 years, and how it will get there. McCormick also noted that the city is struggling with long outdated accounting software that may make planning tough, and credited the city manager for making the process “a little more” accessible to the public.

“But that doesn’t preclude the need for really understanding where we want to go,” she said.

The city is taking a look at its budgeting practices with the goal of improving those systems. According to a report by UC Berkeley public policy students, which was received by council members in April, budget summaries lack “critical information”; the council does not have a “unified strategic vision” for longterm planning; and city financial plans are not closely linked to specific outcomes. The report says current practices “work well,” but adds that “there are serious shortcomings that require action.”

Officials say they want more detail about shelter budget

At a recent council meeting, City Manager Christine Daniel told city officials that, in the current fiscal year, council directed about $1.7 million to the animal shelter. For the coming fiscal year, the proposed budget is about $1.69 million, and Daniel said it’s not uncommon for council to adjust that throughout the year. (Over the course of this year, council added about $70,000 to the shelter budget.)

She also said the shelter would be raising fees paid by nearby cities that use Berkeley animal services, and that those increases would help bring in more revenue.

Councilwoman Linda Maio has said she plans to keep pushing for more detail on the shelter budget moving forward.

“It’s more costly to operate than the old shelter, there is no question about that,” she said.

A shelter staffer giving a kiss to one of the dogs. Photo: Nancy Rubin
A shelter staffer giving a kiss to one of the dogs. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Maio said she will be “pulling apart the existing budget for this year, and wants to look into the community concerns about whether the city is being realistic as far as how it’s funding the shelter, given what members of the public have said about inadequate funding for the facility.

“There’s much more to research,” she said.

Councilman Kriss Worthington said in June he also wants to understand the details better.

“I’ve read every document that we’ve been given,” he said. “I still don’t quite understand how the different pieces stick together.”

One shelter supporter, who asked not to be named, said struggles over the facility’s budget date back to the planning stages of the project, which were fraught with challenges related to both location and finances. She said city staffers insisted that operating costs in the new, much larger building, which has a range of sustainability features and modern resources that the old space lacked, would not be an issue.

“We were told, ‘No, it won’t cost more, it will cost less to run,'” she said. “We didn’t believe it, but you can only say it so many times.”

Local animal advocate Jill Posener, a former city Animal Care Commission member, said there will be tough choices ahead about what kind of shelter the city will support. She said it would be very difficult on the animals and volunteers if the shelter is forced to close for a day or two a week, and hopes it won’t come to that.

“We no longer really support animal welfare the way we used to,” she said. “Shutting the doors to the public does save some money, no question. But you either back your progressive facilities and agencies or you don’t. The city of Berkeley doesn’t have enough money, but this is not the place to be saving it.”

Council is expected to adopt the 2014-15 budget June 24 at its regular meeting.

Read more about the proposed city budget in this staff report. See past city budget coverage on Berkeleyside. Learn about volunteering at the Berkeley animal shelter. Connect with Berkeley Animal Care Services and the Friends of Berkeley Animal Care Services on Facebook.

Related:
Public art a casualty at Berkeley animal shelter (08.22.13)
Planting in the sky: Berkeley’s secret rooftop gardens (08.14.13)
Dog license fees to rise, other Berkeley Council decisions (05.22.13)
Photos: Berkeley’s new animal shelter is officially open (02.14.13)
Pets dumped in Tilden cause problems, become dinner (02.05.13)
After a decade, Berkeley celebrates a new animal shelter (01.31.13)
New Berkeley animal shelter is finally rising (08.12.11)

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