After cities withdraw from agreement, SLO County's new animal shelter project in question

Oct 31, 2017

Progress has stalled on a planned new San Luis Obispo County animal shelter, as two cities voted this week to opt out of an agreement to share the cost of a new facility. 

Two years ago, county officials agreed the Animal Services Division building off Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay must be replaced. Built on a former landfill in 1975, it has deteriorated beyond repair.

According to county staff, “current industry standards and public expectations of animal shelters have shifted substantially and many of the shelter’s original design features and characteristics are now outdated or inconsistent with the current understanding of humane animal sheltering,” as Assistant County Administrator Guy Savage and Jeff Hamm, the county’s health agency director, wrote in a memo to the county board of supervisors. They explain that years of “deferred maintenance, heavy utilization, and harsh environmental conditions,” have taken a heavy toll on the facility.

So in February, the board signed off on a county-brokered agreement with seven cities to each contribute funds for a new facility. One of the agreement’s clauses stipulates that any city wishing to withdraw from the agreement must do so by October 31 or else end up paying part of the financing costs.

County Director of Animal Services Dr. Eric Anderson said there are several reasons why this partnership works.

“We are able to centralize our resources and spread those resources across the entire community rather than each individual city having to have its own building, having to have its own staff, having to have their own officers and their own trucks,” Anderson said. “It also helps us build a certain level of skill and proficiency that allows for a better level of service.”

Now however, the Paso Robles and Atascadero city councils have voted to leave the partnership. Paso Robles City Manager Tom Fruchtey listed what officials there see as possible benefits of the cities handling their own animal services.

“The factors include such things as cost, control, convenience for residents and flexibility,” Fruchtey said. “ And at least tentatively, the direction of the two councils was that we look at having the shelter in the North County be operated by either a private entity or a not-for-profit.”

“It’s a shame the two cities are withdrawing from a regional approach to providing animal services to the public,” said Savage in a county-issued statement Tuesday. “It’s especially disappointing since they signed the project agreement earlier this year after three years of discussions."

Under state law, cities have the option of building their own animal shelters, instead of contracting with a county facility. But what happens now that Paso Robles and Atascadero are opting out?

Anderson says costs would be distributed among the remaining cities depending upon how much each uses the new animal shelter. On October 24, the Arroyo Grande city council decided to send a letter to their Paso Robles and Atascadero colleagues, requesting they remain committed to the agreement. In the case the appeal failed to sway, Arroyo Grande officials agreed that should the city’s cost exceed 15 percent, they would opt out as well.

San Luis Obispo’s city council voted to stay in the contract even without Atascadero and Paso Robles. Council members said they felt both the services and the new shelter are important to all San Luis Obispo County communities. As for Paso Robles and Atascadero, Dr Anderson said, “ultimately they’ll have to make a decision as to what can they do for cheaper and is that going to provide them with an adequate level of service for what their public expects or what they think is appropriate for their community.”

At special meetings Monday, the Paso Robles city council voted unanimously to opt out of the agreement. Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said the city had asked the county for more time to deliberate - beyond the Oct. 31 deadline - but the request was turned down.

“So a decision we did come to. Basically it was built around the issues of cost, control and convenience for the citizens of north county,” Martin said after Monday’s vote. “There are still questions left unanswered, but we feel that we have the appropriate amount of information at this point in time to make the decision that we did. And both cities will be going forward now studying, putting together their own animal control shelter for northern San Luis Obispo County.”

The board of supervisors are planning to discuss next steps at the November 7 meeting.