[Ed. note: The following is the second installment of a two-part story on the findings of a recent audit of the Long Beach Animal Care Services shelter. The first part is available at signaltribunenewspaper.com/?p=36345.]
This week, the City of Long Beach issued a press release about the achievements of its Animal Care Services (ACS) in 2017, announcing another record year of “increased positive outcomes for animals in the community.” While that may sound like great news, some in the community say it is important to consider such findings within a larger context and compare the actual numbers to those of other cities.
The latest statistics for ACS indicate that, compared to 2016, impounds for dogs and cats combined were down 6.8 percent, which city officials say is a record low. The number of animals euthanised was down 36 percent– another record low– and the live-release rate– the percentage of animals that arrive at the shelter but leave with a positive outcome such as a return to owner, adoption or transfer to a rescue organization– had increased by 8 percent.
Other accomplishments the City acknowledged include the opening of a new 800-square-foot medical suite to provide additional medical treatment to shelter animals and the construction and opening of a new 230-square-foot open-air cattery, as well as support of spay and neuter programs and the mandatory spay/neuter law by helping to fund over 2,500 such surgeries for the community’s cats and dogs, resulting in another significant drop in live impounds at the shelter.
“Over the past couple of years, strong community engagement and partnerships with nonprofit groups and animal advocates have contributed to the reduction of animal overpopulation,” said Mayor Robert Garcia, in a quote included in the press release. “I am proud that our city is continually making progress each year and finding more permanent homes for dogs and cats. I am also looking forward to implementing the recent recommendation of our city auditor to save even more animal lives.”
Despite ACS’s progress and the seemingly impressive statistics, for Patricia Turner, co-founder and spokesperson for Stayin’ Alive Long Beach, an animal-advocacy initiative whose ultimate goal is to make Long Beach a no-kill city, those numbers only show part of the picture.
In a recent interview with the Signal Tribune, Turner said ACS’s increases in life-saving are mainly because of the scrutiny of the public and organizations like her own.
She said her group hosts a “very active Facebook page” on which it publishes the City’s stats and counters Garcia’s information, “because the mayor only tends to publish very cherry-picked numbers that show the shelter in a positive light, and we’ve always advocated that he show all of the numbers, so that people realize that, yes, while impounds are down, and euthanasias are down– which is what he often says and he publicizes with great fanfare– adoptions have barely moved up and many, many adoptions could be done, [but] instead of being done, these animals are being killed– and needlessly so.”
Turner has also criticized Garcia for a lack of urgency in requesting an audit of the City’s facility, the P.D. Pitchford Companion Animal Village. Garcia did indeed make the request a year ago, after continued pressure from animal advocates, according to Turner, and the City Auditor’s Office hired animal-shelter consulting firm JVR Shelter Strategies to review ACS shelter operations, including animal intake, veterinary services and programs aimed at positive animal outcomes.
The findings of that audit were released last month, and they included 173 recommendations for the facility to make, including consideration of a formal operating agreement with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals– Los Angeles (spcaLA), which shares the shelter with ACS and is responsible for most of the adoptions at the facility.
“One of the main recommendations we agree with is the plan to review the City’s partnership with spcaLA, which shelter management has indicated has undue influence over the city-run shelter,” Turner said. “One of the main problems with the partnership with spcaLA is that we have a private organization in Long Beach who exerts a high degree of influence over the operations, policies and processes of a publicly funded government department. This means a private organization has some degree of control over how LBACS funds are allocated, without being accountable to the tax-paying public.”
In an interview with the Signal Tribune last week, Madeline Bernstein, president of spcaLA, said she sees no need to devise a new operating agreement, since one already exists and it is working.
“There’s no reason to create a situation or a panic […] when it’s already pretty simple and working,” Bernstein said. “So, if I say we’re going to do an $18.77 promotion for cats all over, we move all the cats out for that. If [ACS Manager] Ted [Stevens] says, ‘I’ve got 20 dogs that I want to do for $20, then we just know which dogs they are, and we charge $20 for those dogs. And if he wants to take a bunch of animals on the road to a mobile and charge something specific, he can do that. He’s not required to charge my prices when he’s doing something specifically unique to him. So, it works fine. We just talk to each other.”
Bernstein emphasized that an important factor in considering approaches to adoptions is the rate at which the animals are returned to the shelter.
“The thing to look at is the return rate and what happens after that,” she said. “And it’s not successful, as far as I’m concerned, if you clear out the shelter on Monday and they all came back in on Tuesday. So, things have to be managed with a knowledge of the industry that most people outside the industry– and certainly these auditors– wouldn’t necessarily have.”
Bernstein added that an advantage of the partnership that spcaLA has with ACS is that, if a particular animal is not being adopted in Long Beach, then her organization can move it to another of its shelters in a different city, where it may be a better demographic fit.
“We’re more than one location,” she said, “so we can share the demographics to benefit the Long Beach animals.”
The Signal Tribune asked Bernstein what she would say if city officials approach her to work out a new contract, considering the audit recommended a revision of the spcaLA-ACS agreement.
“I would say, ‘No, we don’t need a [new] formal operations agreement,’” Bernstein said. “I’d say, ‘If there’s a good idea that you want to work out– a plan to try– then we’ll try it. If there are things that make sense, and we want to implement them, fine. But we have an operating agreement, and there’s no need to mess with that. […] The beauty of it is its flexibility and its protectiveness and autonomy of both organizations. So, I would say, ‘Tell me what it is you want to achieve, and let’s see what kind of program we can put in place to achieve that. And that’s what we can do. But there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.”
Marie Knight, who has served as director of Long Beach Parks, Recreation & Marine for almost a year, concurred that there is indeed an operations agreement but that the auditors are calling for clarification on the working relationship between the two entities– not necessarily a new agreement.
“I think what the audit is saying is that the operational agreement doesn’t define some of the areas that the consultants would prefer to see defined clearer,” Knight said, in a phone interview with the Signal Tribune. “This agreement was entered into quite some time ago, well before I came on board, and it is just as it states– it’s sort of a lease agreement, it’s an operational agreement, because spcaLA put in a significant capital contribution to the construction of the facility, as did the City.”
Knight explained that, although it may be untypical to have such an arrangement for an animal shelter, it is not uncommon for an organization to finance construction of a building, after which the host city would enter into a long-term “arrangement” with the organization to amortize their contribution to the value of the structure.
“Which is really the basis of the agreement,” Knight said. “I think, at the time, in my opinion, and I don’t know. This is just my opinion, because I wasn’t here at the time. A lot of the different operational arrangements weren’t clearly identified and worked out because this was sort of a living, breathing, moving, changing dynamic. As we’ve said in our response, Animal Care Services really started out as just that– animal control and care, with limited operations from the City perspective. But it has grown over time to continue to expand and include more services and more services that weren’t contemplated in the beginning.”
Knight acknowledged that the ACS and spcaLA have separate leadership.
“SpcaLA is a nonprofit organization connected to a much larger organization,” she said. “They have their roles. We have ours. They have some joint-use space. We have space that they use for their operations.”
The Signal Tribune asked Knight to respond to Turner’s criticism that spcaLA has excessive influence over the city-run shelter without being accountable to tax-payers.
“I would say that it is highly inaccurate,” Knight said. “It is not founded in any basis of truth. I’m not sure where she gets her information from, but the spcaLA has absolutely nothing to do with my budget, how I spend my resources, what we do with our services, how we allocate our services. They don’t have any control over our operations at all.”
When asked what steps the City is taking in response to the auditors’ conclusion that staff levels in many areas of ACS are below industry-recommended levels, Knight said it will still take some time to determine exact personnel numbers.
“During the first phase of the review– it’s actually a review– the auditor’s office and the consultant both found that staffing levels, in their opinion, at that point in time, were below industry standards,” she said. “So, they decided to initiate a second phase, which they’re in the process of right now. So, we really don’t have the actual numbers. So, what they are doing right now is benchmarking other shelters [of] similar size [and] similar operations, and then they’ll come back with phase 2, which will tell us where we stand from a staffing level in some of the major areas of shelter operations versus some of the benchmarked other shelters and cities.”
Knight said the preliminary results indicating low staffing levels acknowledge what she and her department “have known all along actually” but that more concrete numbers for staffing should result from phase 2 of the review.
Knight said she does not know exactly when the results of phase 2 will be completed and released, because that second stage had not been anticipated when the audit began.
Moving forward, Knight wants to focus on responsible pet ownership in order to reduce the number of animals killed.
“That’s where we win the war,” she said. “If we can focus more resources on that, then there are less animals that will be coming into the shelter. That’s really where we have to focus.”