Quirks of the County Blog

Tuesday, Jul 10 2012 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Gimme shelter: county and city are talking again

BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

After all the hue and cry and termination of leases and launching a new warehouse "vision" for Animal Control, we're apparently headed back to where we were about this time last year.

In case you haven't been rabidly (ha!) following this topic, the county in April terminated its lease for the city-owned Mount Vernon Avenue animal shelter. suggesting the City of Bakersfield wasn't paying enough for shelter services, which are provided by the county.

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Instead, the Board of Supervisors voted to look at setting up a county-run shelter in a warehouse. They city was left to figure out its own shelter solution.

In late June the county abruptly put its plan on hold to see if something could be worked out with the city.

And next Tuesday County Public Health Director Matt Constantine will present several options to the supervisors, one of which will be to extend the county's relationship with the city for a year (they were on a year-to-year agreement already) so they can work out a number of issues including how much the city should pay going forward and how both agencies can use their resources to better operate the shelter (the same issues they were negotiating last year).

The city has offered to raise its $340,000 annual service fee to the county by $400,000, for a total of $740,000, and it will front the county $100,000 for some immediate improvements to the shelter.

That sounds like a good deal for taxpayers and animals and I hope Constantine recommends supervisors take it and call a halt to this silly warehouse idea.

For his part, Constantine sounded very positive about the 12-month agreement.

"We've asked the city to do a lot in a short period of time and they've come a long way," he said. "This is a good start."

He said the entities are also brainstorming new ways of handling stray and unwanted animals and that together they would realize "a maximized effect" while apart they would only be "striving for the minimum."

Yeah, no kidding. So why'd we waste a year and set everyone's hair on fire breaking the lease only to realize the obvious?

***

I know the prevailing wisdom is it was all about hardball negotiations between the county and one of the hardest balls around, City Manager Alan Tandy.

But I'm not sure I buy that.

Last year the county crunched the numbers (after animal activist Liz Keogh crunched them first) and discovered the city was bringing in so many more animals that its $340,000 a year wasn't paying its freight.

The county figured its cost for "city" animals was closer to $1.1 million. The city balked at that primarily because of "overhead" costs the county figured into its figuring, according to Assistant City Manager Steve Teglia. That overhead paid for a portion of the county's attorney and other administrators' time and is a standard county charge, Teglia said he was told.

It's not standard at the city and in what turned out to be the final city/county meeting on the issue earlier this year, Teglia asked if the county could remove that overhead, about $400,000. That would bring the city's cost down to around $700,000 a year, a number Teglia said he told Constantine the city could live with.

Teglia was still waiting for an answer when he got a call from Californian reporter James Burger about an upcoming Board of Supervisors agenda item to terminate the county's lease for the city-owned Mount Vernon shelter.

"We were shocked," Teglia said.

On the surface, it would seem the county couldn't get the city to pony up its fair share and was forced to resort to drastic measures.

But the county is now talking about a 12-month agreement under which the city would pay $740,000, pretty much what the city had discussed months ago.

If this was about strong-arming the city for more money, the county needs to work on its biceps.

Something else seems to be going on.

***

Last fall, SPCA Director Julie Johnson was involved with city/county meetings to see how the three could do a better job for Kern's animals.

At one point, Constantine put out bids to see if private vendors could take over the shelter. Johnson was asked to submit a budget, which she did.

The groups last met March 6. A month and a half later, the county walked.

"We never heard back on our budget and the next thing, we read in the paper they were breaking with the city," she said.

Then there's the new Animal Control Director issue.

The county had decided to make animal control its own department and hire a new director, someone with the background and drive to really change things up.

But before that person could be hired, supervisors voted April 24 to spend $640,000 on new modular kennels, break the lease with the city and search for a warehouse to shelter animals (all at once and with very little public discussion, mind you). At the meeting, animal activist Keogh asked why they wouldn't wait until a new director was hired, but her questions were more or less ignored. The county still hasn't hired a new director.

Oh, and I find it interesting that the county has said several times it doesn't have the money to rehab the Mount Vernon shelter yet it was prepared to spend $1.5 million ($640,000 for kennels, $310,000 for the first year of a 10-year lease and at least $500,000 to retrofit the warehouse) with little to no details of how it would all work.

That $1.5 million might go a long ways to rehabbing the existing shelter.

The word flailing comes to mind.

Meanwhile, more prevailing wisdom suggests the city had a so-called pucker moment when it looked at how much running a shelter would cost and went hat in hand to the county. Again, I don't think so.

The city's figures, which it published as part of its budget talks, suggest it very well could have operated its own shelter. It had even hired the SPCA as a consultant and was gearing up to get into the shelter business when elected officials stepped in to see if there was a way to work things out.

"They had assembled a whole team and were taking good logical steps," said the SPCA's Johnson of the city's shelter efforts. "Everyone thinks the city blinked and that's not what happened at all."

She's glad the city and county are back to the idea of operating a single shelter, saying it's far better for taxpayers and the animals to provide a cohesive, joint approach.

I'm glad too.

I just hope the county and city can set aside whatever's been plaguing their relationship and focus on the issue at hand, taking care of thousands of stray and unwanted animals.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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