COLUMBUS — Columbus City Council members went against a recommendation from City Administrator Tara Vasicek and overrode a veto from Mayor Jim Bulkley to approve a contract to continue housing stray animals at Paws and Claws Adoption Center.
The 6-1 vote Monday night followed more than an hour of discussion and debate inside a packed council chambers filled mainly with supporters of the Platte Valley Humane Society (PVHS), which owns and operates the animal shelter at 2124 13th St.
“All of these people are in this room because they support Paws and Claws and don’t want to see it go away,” said Rick Porter, who drew a round of applause from the crowd when he questioned how the contract extension “is even an issue.”
A couple of financial changes were at the heart of Monday night’s debate and a contentious, yearlong negotiation process between the city and local Humane Society.
In the five-year contract extension, which takes effect Jan. 1, the city will pay $80,000 annually to utilize the animal shelter, a 49 percent increase from the $53,577 paid this year.
Bulkley and Vasicek argued this increase is too large and unfairly charges the city for services it’s not required to offer.
PVHS representatives disagreed, saying the higher fee is justified by the number of animals the city brings to the downtown facility.
Paws and Claws takes in roughly 700 animals per year, with around 75 percent coming from Columbus. With $139,000 in operating expenses last year, the city’s share of those costs should be closer to $100,000, according to Terry Reardon, a former city councilman who spoke in support of the Humane Society.
“Everybody in this audience is looking out for the best interest of the animals, but we want to be fairly compensated for that,” he said. “That shelter goes without a lot.”
PVHS initially asked for a $96,000 annual payment from the city before the negotiation process whittled that number down to $80,000.
Deb Potter, executive director of PVHS, called the city’s first counteroffer of $45,000 “an insult.”
In the initial 10-year agreement inked in 2007, when Paws and Claws opened its doors, the city agreed to pay $30,000 annually for operating and personnel expenses at the shelter, with that amount adjusted based on the consumer price index after two years, plus $20,000 annually for capital building expenses.
The current contract has the city paying $33,577 for operating and personnel expenses this year, plus the additional $20,000, for a total of $53,577.
Vasicek contended that the $80,000 figure included in the extension charges the city for services that extend beyond what municipal code requires.
City code states that an animal picked up by animal control or the police department will be held for up to 72 hours, giving the owner time to claim their missing pet, then it can be “destroyed in a humane manner” unless the animal control officer believes a suitable home can be found.
When the city operated its own animal shelter prior to contracting with PVHS, the policy was to hold animals for 30 days before they were euthanized.
At Paws and Claws, a no-kill shelter, animals brought in by the city become the responsibility of PVHS after that 72-hour window.
Vasicek believes the new agreement forces the city to pay expenses for an animal’s entire stay at the shelter, which can be several weeks before adoption.
She also took issue with the removal of breach-of-contract language stating that the city would be “credited” the $200,000 it paid for capital building expenses over the past decade should PVHS no longer provide shelter services.
A trade-off in the new agreement is the city will no longer be required to cover veterinary expenses for the first 72 hours an animal is held at the shelter — saving roughly $3,000 to $4,000 annually — unless the animal is sick or injured when it’s brought in by animal control or police officers.
Vasicek presented her own figures Monday night that show the city could operate an animal shelter at a building it already owns for approximately $216,800 annually over the next five years, including $18,000 in startup costs for equipment plus the existing animal control budget.
Those figures put the cost of the PVHS contract at $246,529 annually when the $80,000 payment is added to the existing animal control expenses, which start at $160,000 for 2018 and increase to $173,189 in 2022.
The city administrator and mayor told council members the PVHS agreement is not the most-efficient way to spend taxpayer money.
“PVHS has experienced a continually improving financial position despite PVHS’ claim that the compensation from the city is totally inadequate,” Vasicek said while noting that the Humane Society has repaid its mortgage on the Paws and Claws property and had “liquid assets” of $143,000 as of January.
In addition to the city’s payment, the nonprofit Platte Valley Humane Society receives money from donors and fundraisers, adoption fees and fees charged to owners who claim their pets. The Humane Society also has contracts with Platte County, Colfax County and Schuyler to house stray animals.
Charles Rogers, a local attorney representing PVHS, responded to Vasicek’s comments by saying money from Humane Society donors and fundraisers shouldn’t be used to subsidize a city service.
“That’s not what the donations are for,” he said.
Potter also noted that she met with city officials, including Bulkley, about 18 months ago — prior to Vasicek’s arrival in February — and let them know the Humane Society would be asking for an increase in the city’s financial contribution while removing the building credit from the new contract.
She said Vasicek’s memo to council members recommending the contract extension be denied came “from out of left field.”
Potter and other PVHS representatives questioned whether the city could operate its own shelter at the costs presented by Vasicek, and she also took aim at the facility run by the city in Pawnee Park East before Paws and Claws opened.
“Your facility was horrible. Your facility had a bad reputation. Your facility had disease constantly,” Potter said, adding that the 30-day euthanasia rule was “the worst policy I’ve ever had to deal with.”
“Hopefully it will never return to that for the city of Columbus,” she said.
Potter also brought up Columbus Police Chief Chuck Sherer’s preference that the city not operate its own shelter.
“He knows that can turn into a headache, a nightmare and more expense than you’re anticipating,” she said.
Beth Augustine-Schulte was the lone city council member to vote against the contract, saying she had concerns about the difficult negotiation process and lack of clear communication between the two parties along the way.
Even with Councilman John Lohr absent from the meeting, the city council still had the six votes needed to override the mayor’s veto.
Despite the bickering from higher-ups, representatives from both the city and PVHS agreed the relationship between those involved with day-to-day activities at Paws and Claws has never been better.
“Our staff and their staff work seamlessly together, better now than they ever have,” Sherer said.