The Paso Robles and Atascadero City Councils decided last week to sever ties with county Animal Services and build their own North County shelter.
They also discussed contracting with a nonprofit agency to run it.
The cities faced an Oct. 31 deadline to decide whether to stay in an agreement to help fund a new countywide shelter in San Luis Obispo. After that date, they’d be hit with a financial penalty if they pulled out. With that in mind, the cities sent a letter to the county officials last week informing them they had decided to withdraw.
If the decision is truly final — and we hope it’s not — it means the other five cities in the county will be stuck paying a bigger share of the regional shelter. If their share of costs climbs too high, other cities could back out as well, putting the entire project in jeopardy.
We believe there is still an opportunity to save the countywide project.
The mayors of Paso Robles and Atascadero told The Tribune Editorial Board they are willing to continue negotiating, as long as the county gives them more time to consider their options.
We don’t want to see the county’s project delayed — the current shelter is an embarrassment — but we also believe full participation is key to making the project successful.
Given that, why not give the cities until the end of the year to decide, especially since it appears it would be in the best interests of both sides to stick with a countywide project.
Atascadero and Paso Robles had thought they might save money if they went out on their own. As it turns out, the cost of building a North County shelter versus participating in a countywide project is a wash.
If Paso and Atascadero contribute to the county shelter, their combined bill is $4.5 million. If they build their own, it’s between $4.5 million to $5.2 million — if that very preliminary estimate holds up.
The cities could realize a slight savings on operational expenses. Petaluma Animal Services Foundation — a nonprofit that could step in and operate the facility — would charge $502,000 per year to provide animal control services, which is $53,441 less than the county charges.
That’s a relative pittance — not nearly worth the headaches and liability the two cities would assume by striking out on their own.
Plus, we don’t believe such an important decision should be rushed, but that’s exactly what happened.
The plans and cost estimates on which the two councils based their votes were developed over the course of three weeks. It takes longer than that to plan a wedding.
Another concern: Public participation in this critically important decision was practically nonexistent; only one member of the public spoke at each City Council meeting.
Both the county and the cities should take a step back and reconsider.
Start by focusing on why the cities were tempted to go rogue in the first place.
Here are some arguments that have been raised by North County officials:
Officials in Atascadero and Paso Robles raised their eyebrows at the $14.4 million estimate for a new, countywide shelter. They also complained that the cost — the original estimate was around $10 million, though that was more of a rough guess — kept rising over the past several years.
We’ve been monitoring public works projects for years, and it’s a fact of life that costs do rise exponentially over time. The original back-of-a-napkin cost estimate may bear little resemblance to the final price tag.
A notorious example: In 2012, the city of Atascadero estimated roadwork required for the now-defunct Walmart project at $4.5 million. Just two years later, the estimate had ballooned to $12 million.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt the county to run the numbers again and see if there are places to cut corners.
Life of the project
The cities say they’ve been guaranteed the use of the shelter for the 25 years it will take to pay off the project, but the lifespan of a shelter is more like 40 or 45 years. They want a guarantee they’ll be allowed to use the shelter — rent free — for that extended period of time.
North County residents would no longer have to travel to San Luis Obispo to adopt a pet, surrender a stray or rent a cat trap. But how often, on average, does someone need to go to an animal shelter? Once a year, if that?
A stronger argument could be made that North County residents might get faster responses to calls for service if animal control officers were locally based. If slow response times are indeed an issue, we urge the county to look at setting new benchmarks for North County.
By hiring a contractor, the two cities could specify which services they want. We wonder, though, exactly how much local control the two cities will have if they’re dealing with an out-of-town organization such as Petaluma Animal Services, which is headquartered in Northern California and has no other clients on the Central Coast.
Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin told us no decision has been made to contract with Petaluma Animal Services; if the cities do decide to strike out on their own, they will likely issue a request for proposals to shelter operators.
But say the cities do opt to hire a nonprofit to run a North County facility. What happens if things don’t work out?
There aren’t many nonprofits out there willing to run an animal shelter in San Luis Obispo County; as far as we can tell, the Petaluma foundation is the only one on the radar.
If need be, Paso and Atascadero could run the shelter themselves, but that would cost them more than they would have been paying the county, according to an Atascadero city staff report.
Providing animal services is a demanding mission. It requires responding to dog bites, loose animals and some heartbreaking animal cruelty cases, as well as performing the feel-good functions of reuniting lost pets with their owners and placing strays in “forever homes.”
County Animal Services has met these challenges while operating out of a woefully inadequate and depressingly dingy facility.
A bright, new, consolidated animal shelter that would serve the entire county would be a huge step forward.
We believe it’s wiser and safer for Paso Robles and Atascadero to stick with the county, and we strongly urge the Paso Robles and Atascadero City Councils to reconsider their decision.
We also urge the county Board of Supervisors, which is scheduled to discuss the issue on Tuesday, to give them the time to do so.
We also urge the county to find out exactly why the two cities are dissatisfied, and attempt to satisfy their concerns.
For the sake of all county jurisdictions — and especially for the sake of abused, neglected and stray animals — we believe it’s worth making one last-ditch effort to negotiate an agreement acceptable to everyone.