Finance

When Cities and Counties Fight, Sometimes It's the Animals That Suffer

A dispute this fall between the city of Bakersfield and Kern County in California over animal shelter costs shows just how inter-local agreements can easily fall apart without proper nurturing.
by | December 16, 2013
Flickr/niallkennedy
 

Inter-local agreements, where jurisdictions team up to save money on services, are often billed as a win-win for governments and taxpayers. But a less than amicable split up this fall between the city of Bakersfield, Calif. and Kern County over animal shelter costs shows just how those agreements can easily fall apart without proper nurturing.

For decades, Kern County and Bakersfield, located at the southern end of California’s richly agricultural Central Valley, shared animal shelter operations. The county ran the service and leased land from the city for the shelter headquarters. Separately, a contract agreement dictated what the city would pay the county for taking care of the city’s share of shelter costs. But the contract ran out in 2009 and from there, the agreement was extended annually. That’s where the brick in the mortar started coming lose.

“It got to a point where the county was wanting almost triple of our [original] contract amount,” said Steve Teglia, assistant to the Bakersfield city manager.

To the county’s way of thinking, it was the one being shorted.

“This all came about because someone in county questioned the city about the amount of money they were paying,” said Janice Anderson, who heads up the Kern County Animal Control Commission. “The county had documentation they were underpaying.”

The break in trust was never repaired. The city had building doubts about whether the fees were deserved – for one, some had reservations that the county was collecting its data accurately. “We weren’t quite sure it was justified,” Teglia continued. “We weren’t even quite sure the level of service...was adequate.”

The turnover over the last several years of Kern’s Director of Animal Control, whose job it is to run the shelter, seems to have made things worse. Five people have held the job in the last 10 years and two (including the one who presided over much of the fallout between the city and county) were fired in the past 2 ½ years. Jen Woodard, the most recent director fired, was selected by the County Board of Supervisors in October 2012 with much fanfare. But after she spent a year butting heads with volunteers, staff and local officials, the board terminated her contract in September.

In one particularly spectacular move, Woodard responded to the city ending the county’s lease of the animal shelter property by commenting on Facebook that any city animals not transferred to the new location would be euthanized. Her comments (which were inaccurate) went viral, receiving a massive response from the public and creating an embarrassment for local officials. Meanwhile, a preliminary agreement to extend the city/county contract sat unattended on Woodard’s desk, Teglia and Anderson said.

Woodward came to Kern after running adoption services for the no-kill Best Friends Animal Society in the Los Angeles area, and had inspired high hopes when she started the new job. Her goal was to dramatically lower (if not eliminate) the Bakersfield area’s high euthanasia rate. Kern County takes in more than 30,000 animals a year and euthanizes 60 percent to 70 percent of them, according to local news reports. In 2011, the county euthanized 19,776 animals, a rate of 67 percent.

Anderson attributed much of the fallout to Woodard’s management and failure to make progress on the kill rate. “I think those things played disastrously over the last year she’s been here – she was ineffective,” Anderson said.

Tackling kill rates is no small endeavor, said Gene Mueller, who manages King County, Wash., Regional Animal Services in the Seattle metro area. King County, which shares animal shelter services with 25 cities in the area, has successfully lowered its rate from about 40 percent in 2007 to now less than 14 percent. Mueller said the rate was lowered by getting animals out of the shelter “as soon as legally possible.” That includes promoting adoptions promptly, having medical staff in the shelter to treat animals and immediately deal with health issues (such as containing disease and infections that can eventually force euthanasia). More than 1,000 of the area’s animals are also in foster homes (King County typically takes in up to 4,800 animals annually). But none of that can be accomplished without proper funds and communication, Mueller said. And still, when King County renegotiated its contract with cities earlier this year, two localities opted out over costs.

“Everyone always goes, ‘Well I can do it cheaper myself,’” Mueller said. “And everyone can do it cheaper themselves when you imagine it in your mind.”

And in the Central Valley, Kern County and Bakersfield are experiencing that truth. (Both sides, however say they are focusing on the positive: “We have always needed more space here,” Teglia said.) Just three months after the split became official and Kern County moved its services to a building on the other side of Bakersfield, both animal sheltering operations are running over budget. By Oct. 19, Bakersfield had already spent $512,630 -- not including the cost of staff hours – of the $599,000 it set aside for the year. Kern has already run up against its $2.5 million projected cost to open and run the new facility.

Meanwhile operational issues continue to stoke the fire between the city and county. The two sides, for example, disagree on the proper animal drop off policy: the city maintains that each shelter should accept an animal dropped off only by their own residents while Kern says animals should be dropped off according to the closer shelter to the area in which they are found. That has led to the creation of the Kern County Animal Control Commission, which is tasked with making recommendations to the city and county on establishing two shelters. Such a commission would have had the best impact if it had been established before the split, said Wayne Miller, an economist at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and an expert on inter-local agreements.

“Sometimes parties just try to negotiate with officials without involving the general public,” he said. “I think if you take little time initially to get feedback from the public I think officials are more likely to put political issues aside.”

Still, it could be the first positive step toward fixing the problem. While it won’t reverse what Anderson calls, “a nasty divorce,” she hopes it will lay the foundation for a friendly relationship in the years to come. If not for anything else, the animals’ sake.

“It’s a work in progress and it’s going to be a good thing in the long run,” she said.

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