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.

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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  • mirrored

    It’s not strange if you read what I posted. The reason many Pit mixes end up at BACS is because of the free training they get from BAD RAP when they are sheltered there and when they are adopted. That’s a major plus. A Pit mixes best chance is to be at BACS. I am glad they are there.

  • mirrored

    Correction… more than 2,000,000 irresponsible owners have failed the public by not training and or tending to their dogs properly. Don’t blame the dog. The owners failed them.

  • mirrored

    Visiting to adopt animals there is not knowing the truth of the conditions and issues at the old shelter. Being there at 8am until 5pm nearly every day for years you KNOW the truth of it. If I visited to adopt animals, I’d probably respond the same as you.

  • Antonio Noguerra

    I’m happy to pay what I pay. I just want more for my money. And that means market salaries, not gift deals unheard of outside of Berkeley. For the city to pay the employER part of retirement funds makes no sense. For the 50-something fire chief to retire with a guaranteed 250k pension is obscene.

    I notice you addressed none of my other points. Why do you fear public accountability?

  • Peter Moore

    Right, it’s the fault of those damn unions and their stupid rules. The fact that you want Berkeley employees to make “market salaries” (a term I’m going to guess means “less money”)

  • Just sayin

    Keep kickin the can down the curb. Those animals were bred over generations to be killing machines. 23 people died by pitbulls in the US in 2012. There are plenty of other, safer breeds out there that should be promoted for adoption. Not these killing machines.

  • Joel

    Agreed. I spent four years volunteering at the old shelter. The kennels were inadequate and outdated. The layout was designed with the intent of storing animals, with no thought given to their basic welfare. The cat house was a windowless shed. There was not even a drinking fountain for staff or volunteers.
    There was zero doubt that the utility bill was going to be much higher at the newer shelter, mainly because the old shelter was essentially a shed with a small office attached.

  • Joel

    None of the people that spend time at BACS are going to buy your ridiculous anti-pit propaganda.
    And why are there not that many dogs there (in the 25-30 range)? Because staff and volunteers work damn hard to get them out into homes and rescues.

  • bgal4

    Peter, your comparison to Oakland’s tax rates and salaries exposes your argument as fact challenged. Oakland shares Berkeley irresponsible ideologically driven budgeting problems. Expecting local government practice principles of good governance is a righteous, sensible cause.

  • John Freeman

    Attacking workers, especially with disinformation about pensions as “Antonio” has done, is hardly a righteous cry for good governance.

    For one thing, to be righteous, such a rallying cry would have to be demonstrably well informed, honest, and open-minded in its dealings. For another, it would have to acknowledge and come to terms with how the financial problems of ours and other municipalities are inseparable from other deep problems in the economy that are much larger than Berkeley.

    Expecting local government practice principles of good governance is a righteous, sensible cause.

  • guest

    You left out “Move to Walnut Creek”

  • guest

    >There are times when pit mixes are the majority but NOT ALL THE TIME as you accuse them to be.

    My comment was a response to the above statement which I believe to be false. Every time I have checked over the last year or so pit mixes have been an overwhelming majority.

  • guest

    This is not the case in other communities I have looked in. My family ended up getting our last dog from a shelter outside of Sacramento because there are so few dogs available in the bay area that aren’t pit or chihuahua mixes. Perhaps it is particular to the California Bay Area in some way.

  • guest

    …and yet, “John,” you offer not a single shred of evidence disproving anything “Antonio” has said. Just a long string of thinly-veiled personal attacks.

    Do you believe that these kind of attacks are a good way to build community or have a productive discussion?

  • guest

    Fiscal responsibility is a goal of both Progressives & Tea Partiers.

    Instead of making ad-hominem attacks about “teabaggy” types, why not explain why you believe that fiscal responsibility is a bad thing?

  • guest

    No true Scotsman, eh?

  • guest

    >There was not even a drinking fountain for staff or volunteers.

    You had sinks, right? So why would you specifically need a drinking fountain? Do you know what a cup is?

  • Peter Moore

    Hey, you misspelled your “name”

    “Fiscal responsibility” is a bad thing when it is is used as a rhetorical smokescreen to beat up workers.

  • mirrored

    I don’t even know what that means…..? True Scotsman huh?

  • mirrored

    There is this thing called the Health Department and strange thing is they don’t want you drinking water out of the same sink that the bowls and equipment off the urine/feces kennel floors are washed in. Even from a cup. I heard they do that to hand washing stations too. They don’t allow people to drink out of them, even from a cup. Can you believe that? I mean, that just makes me mad. What do they expect me to do? Drink from a drinking fountain? Geez…./end sarcasm.

  • mirrored

    I hope those 23 families of the people killed sued the 23 dog owners that are to blame for the death of their loved one. No dog is a “killing machine” unless it was not given proper training/supervision or neglected. “A pit bull eradication” program wouldn’t fix anything because the real problem would remain. Fail owners. Humans neglecting their responsibilities to a pet. So long as people continue to do this, there is no solving the real source of the problem.

  • guest

    Try google.

  • guest

    So only two sinks in the whole shelter? Well, I know for a fact that that’s a lie.

  • Guest

    61% of fatal dog attacks are caused by pit bull mixes despite the fact that they make up < 5% of the dog population in the United States.

    Why has the Berkeley shelter turned into a dumping ground for these dangerous dogs?

  • mirrored

    You are right. That is a lie because I never said there was only two sinks at the old shelter. There was actually only 5 sinks accessible to volunteers/the public. One in the women’s restroom, one in the mens. There was a hand washing sink in the front office and then a big sink near the kennels that was for washing all the bowls, toys, equipment. Small dogs were also washed in it. The last of the 5 fully accessible sinks was a small one in the cat room. It was used to wash hands and clean the cages, bowls, equipment. There was 2 other sinks at the shelter but you had to have permission to access them. There was one other big sink in the laundry room and it was used to bathe the large animals in. The last sink was in the staff only area of the shelter. It was a multi-purpose room, they used it for meetings, classes, basic vet procedures such as immunizations etc. The small sink in there was used mostly to clean animal used items and wash hands. None of the sinks were any where close to being safe to drink out of. Your comment of “Do you know what a cup is?” doesn’t work. Try again.

  • mirrored

    I already answered why you’ll find pit bulls at BACS. I’ll repost it since there are so many replies to this thread. Also, the dogs aren’t dangerous unless their owners fail them. If they don’t get the right training and care, they can become dangerous just like any other dog.:

    There are times when pit mixes are the majority but not all the time as you accuse them to be. The fact of the matter is that many pit mixes end up at BACS because BAD RAP (Pit rescue & training) gives free classes to any of BACS pit mixes as they have their classes across the street. It’s a good thing that pit mixes end up at BACS. They get free behavior and training classes every weekend.

    Also, when a pit mix is adopted from BACS they get FREE training classes at BAD RAP and they get to skip the waiting list to attend these classes. Pit mixes are best set up for success being adopted out of BACS. So much love to BAD RAP for making this possible! Thank you!

  • mirrored

    They could if they were rigged to automatically sense movement and fire. Otherwise, a gun can’t kill a person without it’s trigger somewhere being pulled. It has to be operated in order to kill.

  • Joel

    Cost saving measure! No drinking fountains needed in any public buildings! Just use sinks, and bring your own cup. Brilliant.

  • Road Wolf

    I wish there was a way, (except by way wagging all out election war), to make the City Council explain in better detail why a brand new animal shelter, that is way advanced into animal care cannot get full funding? Seems like someone isn’t doing their job, like they’re kicking the can down the road kind of political crap. The “lack of transparency” looks more like the lack of prioritizing and implementing what should have already have occurred. The Shelter was built and there was ten years to fund it. What happened to the can in those ten years?

  • Ok2care77

    If you would educate ourself, the reason is that irresponsible people breed pitbulls for the money. When it doesn’t pay off, they abandon the animals. Not the pitbulls fault that they are being bred by heartless people.