Steller: New animal shelter's price is high but worth it

2014-04-06T00:00:00Z 2014-04-07T16:03:20Z Steller: New animal shelter's price is high but worth itTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You can’t tour the Pima Animal Care Center and come away thinking everything’s OK.

Everything is not OK.

One of the many signs of this is an area that the staff calls Hallway 73, a wide corridor with doors at each end where rows of cat kennels, two high, line both walls. This is the new feline isolation space where sick cats are kept away from other cats — an ad-lib of the sort the staff there is forced to invent.

Another is in the shelter’s “clinic,” a small room where a half-dozen people went in and out Wednesday while working and monitoring a few dogs in kennels stacked in a corner. It’s the new workplace of veterinarian Jen Wilcox, who arrived a couple of months ago.

“We have no place to treat treatable illnesses,” she said. “We can’t move two feet without hitting each other.”

The decades-old Pima Animal Care Center is a chaotic amalgam of old and a little new construction where staff is forced to innovate in order to save more of the 20-some thousands dogs, cats and other small animals that come in the door annually

So, it’s no question it’s a problem that needs to be solved. The only question is whether it needs a $22.5 million solution. Your answer depends on whether you want to pay for a partial solution or a transformational one.

In March, the Pima County Board of Supervisors referred a bond issue to the November ballot, asking voters to decide whether to take on debt to spend up to that amount, $22.5 million, for a new animal shelter.

On its face, that number sounds like a lot, to me and to some others. Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller has pointed out examples of several locales around the country that have built new animal shelters for less in recent years, stirring some local opposition to the project.

“I definitely want an animal control center built,” Miller told me Friday morning. But she added, “You’ve got to do a sanity check on these numbers.”

I could only begin to grapple with the numbers after I saw the variety of functions the center is trying to carry out and the change of attitude employees are trying to implement. In the last year, the center’s staff has tried to revolutionize its shelter function, going from a warehousing approach, where a high proportion of animals were killed, to something closer to an animal hospital and adoption center.

“When I first got here, if they coughed, they were put down. If they limped, they were put down,” said center director Kim Janes.

The center has been working to change that. Last fiscal year, up through March, the center killed 37 percent of the animals it took in. This year, the rate is down to 25 percent.

The kennel operation is just one of the many functions of the shelter. It also serves as a law-enforcement center, where animal-control officers park their trucks, have lockers and are sent out. It’s an intake center, where people bring in unwanted or stray animals. It’s an adoption center where families come to find a new member. There are licensing windows. There’s Wilcox’s veterinary office and separate trailer used as a spay-and-neuter clinic.

As it stands, employees make do.

“It’s not like we’re waiting for a new building, then starting the work. We’re working now,” shelter director Jose Ocano told me.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry did a sort of “sanity check” of the sort Miller requested in a memo he put out Thursday afternoon. It found that some new animal care centers are cheaper than the up-to-$506-per-square-foot cost of the proposed new Pima County shelter. But good ones are in that ballpark, or cost even more.

Much cheaper shelters, such as the new one going up in Fresno, have been built. That one is costing just $2.7 million. But it’s only for dogs, not cats, and it’s a rudimentary structure that handles many fewer animals than Pima County’s. Fresno County’s shelter accepted 3,942 animals last year; Pima County’s shelter took in about 24,000.

Beyond that, Fresno’s shelter has largely been a killing center. Of those, 3,942 animals it took in, 2,363 were killed, the Fresno Bee reported. A shelter that kills 60 percent of its animals is not one to emulate.

There are other, apparently cheaper, comparisons Miller and others have brought up. Berkeley, Calif., built a new shelter for $12 million, but it’s much smaller than the one proposed for Pima County. The per-square-foot cost is about $1,078, Huckelberry reported.

The one Huckelberry would like Pima County to emulate is the new Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation Facility, which carries out a comparable set of services to Pima County’s and had a total cost of $23.7 million, or $537 per square foot.

The point is, while this shelter plan looks expensive, it’s not outrageously costly if we want the center to continue its transformation from a warehousing-and-killing center to a treatment-and-adoption center. Janes and Ocano say that with improved spay-and-neuter facilities, fewer animals will come in; with an improved clinic, fewer animals will be sick and more will be adoptable; with an improved adoption center, more pets will go out.

Another key factor — while the $22.5 million would mean issuing new debt, it’s less than what the county is paying off annually. So it would not result in a net increase in debt.

“We’re retiring more debt than we’re issuing, so it cannot affect the tax rate,” Huckelberry said.

So, with all the factors in mind, I’m willing to swallow the apparently high price of a new shelter that will complete the Pima Animal Care Center’s transformation and last decades.

When I keep in mind the thousands of dogs and cats who’ve been killed at the center over the years, the hundreds who are there in kennels at this moment, and our easy ability to transform the place at a cost the average taxpayer will not notice, the price no longer seems so high.

It seems almost like atonement.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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