Officials mull costs versus demand for shelter

Placer County considering contracting out animal services
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Media Life columnist
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Loomis resident Mark Roberts said it was no shock to him when he read that Placer County’s plans for a new animal shelter would cost an estimated $23.6 million.

“It doesn’t surprise me anymore,” Roberts said. “Government is out of control and there is no cost containment as long as they have tax money, they can spend, spend, spend.”

The cost — still an estimate — also caused some members of the Placer County Board of Supervisors to question the projected price for a new building proposed for North Auburn that will shelter homeless dogs and cats.

Roberts said the pricetag seemed in his mind to be extreme — with the cost per square foot enough to buy a spectacular residence.

The estimate is also apparently pricier than the cost of a hospital — the one for humans — according to RS Means cost data. The figure, based on the 2008 U.S. national average at the peak of the construction market and using union labor, was $246.42 a square foot —  including architect and contractor fees.

One supervisor penciled out the $23.6 million animal shelter cost at $657 a square foot. The actual construction cost — which Facility Services staff is hoping can go lower once bids are in — is expected to be in the $13 million range, or a projected $375 a square foot.

Is the construction of the new animal shelter going to be mired in controversy over costs? Or is the cost in line with what a county wants or needs?

Balancing act on costs
Supervisors like Jim Holmes and Jennifer Montgomery are attempting to balance what they say is a hefty pricetag with a demand for a modern, long-needed shelter for homeless animals in North Auburn.

The county currently has about $8.5 million set aside in a capital funding account to pay for the project. The balance of the funding is under consideration by the county’s infrastructure investment committee, which is tasked with prioritizing capital spending.

“$23.6 million is a hefty chunk of funding but the current animal shelter is grossly inadequate,” Holmes said. “We need to move into the 21 st century. We need lobbies, meeting rooms. It’s an expensive proposition at a time when we’re looking at other projects like regional sewer.”

Montgomery said she’s looking for funding from a variety of sources and partnerships that could keep operational costs down.

The District 5 supervisor also believes in retaining services in the Auburn area, which is the county seat but has been eclipsed in recent years by rapid population growth in South Placer County. That growth has resulted in a move of most of the courts to a new facility built by the county in Roseville and construction of a new South Placer Adult Correctional Center.

“I am very committed to keeping county services in Auburn and in the center of the county geographically,” Montgomery said. “Building in Auburn reaffirms that commitment.”

Montgomery said that she’ll also be making the case for other jurisdictional partners, including Auburn, Roseville and in the private sector.

“I don’t think the cost should be borne by the county, because the shelter serves other jurisdictions,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery and Holmes both are supportive of moving ahead and not delaying the project.

“It absolutely needs to be replaced,” Montgomery said. “Whether at a cost of $23.6 million? That’s a better question.”

Montgomery said she and Supervisor Jack Duran are going to sit down with the county’s Facility Services Department “to put a sharp pencil to numbers” to find possible cost savings.

Montgomery is also expressing concern over the cost to run the facility once it is built. Projected to be 35,000 square feet, the proposed shelter is sized to house 68 dogs, 92 cats and other animal types to accommodate current needs and a projected 25-year growth in population. The current facility holds about 50 dogs and 80 cats.

Sacramento’s shelter, built for $22.9 million and including a 39,000-square-foot main building, 3,400-square-foot clinic and 1,800-square-foot barn, has room for 1,000 animals.

No operational estimates
Montgomery asked Facility Services and Animal Services managers involved with the project what the projected costs of running the facility would be but received no estimates on actual dollar amounts.
Instead, Animal Services Program Manager Mike Winters said that three different scenarios are being examined. One would involve utilizing existing staff, volunteers and inmate labor.

“It’s going to be a larger facility so we have to look at that,” Winters said. “The other option might be to look at a joint powers-type organizational setup. Another is a non-profit organization that could work as a contractor to operate the adoption center and shelter functions, while the county maintains its animal control functions.”

Winters said that contracting out the care and adoption function would be the best option but costs haven’t been worked out yet on the price to operate the new building.

Montgomery asked staff at a recent board meeting to make sure that, in the future, if any proposal for infrastructure improvements comes forward, it identifies funding sources for maintenance and operations.

Supervisor Kirk Uhler expressed his support for delivering alternative service models involving the private sector to deal with operational costs on projects like a new animal shelter.

Contracting out an option
If Placer County were to move on a contract arrangement, it would be following the lead of Roseville and Rocklin.

Roseville has had a longtime arrangement with the Placer County SPCA that separates enforcement and adoption-care functions. The current contract provides the SPCA with $207 per animal when city enforcement services brings a cat or dog to the Roseville shelter. Leilani Fratis, CEO of the Roseville SPCA, said the non-profit has donor-funded services to assist with the cost to treat animals for everything from broken legs to ligament tears to heartworm. The contract for 2012 was for $630,600 to cover routine shelter care for up to 3,000 animals and other services.

About 25 percent of the animals are sent out to foster homes as the SPCA works to provide adoptable pets — that have been spayed or neutered to prevent further unwanted animals.

The SPCA’s “live release rate” is 81 percent. The average in California and the U.S. falls below 50 percent, Fratis said. The shelter accepts about 4,000 animals a year — a third dogs and two-thirds cats.

“Working with government, open admission laws means that regardless of temperament and health, we’re obliged to accept,” Fratis said. “We do euthanize. It would be completely inhumane to allow an animal to suffer if it has behavior issues that can’t be reversed or an untreatable condition. With our services and donor-supplemented services, we’re able to provide the best quality of care.”

While Placer County — which until two years ago was attempting to partner with Roseville and the SPCA on a new shelter in South Placer — is building with government funding, the SPCA has taken a different approach. In December 2011, just as Placer County was starting to move on the North Auburn location, the SPCA bought land and buildings for $1.9 million formerly owned by Surewest near Interstate 80.

Fratis said the Placer SPCA has no estimates on its own projected costs as it moves through its schematic design stage but that the facility will be hospital-quality. The design stage completion should yield the cost estimate and signal a step into fund-raising, she said.

The schematic includes several innovations that Fratis said have come with increased knowledge in the pet-care and adoption field. The list includes an air-circulation system that moves air in and out of buildings to avoid cross-contamination — something that Placer is incorporating into its plans.

For Fratis, the level of care is something that people want for homeless animals, to give them the best chance to be adoptable — and adopted.

“I feel we have an obligation and I feel we have a community that wants it to be the case,” Fratis said.

Rocklin is also into a contracting partnership arrangement. The city marked the grand opening of a new privately operated animal facility on March 8. The Rocklin Police Department, which handles enforcement, signed a contract with veterinarian Bikram Basra last July and intake and adoptions are now handled out of a Stanford Ranch Road facility. The contract represented a break with Placer County, which handled Rocklin’s animals before that.

The contract is for $131,556, compared with the $129,291 it had annually paid Placer County. On the enforcement side, Rocklin is estimating an annual savings of $25,318 in staff time and vehicle-related costs to drive back and forth to North Auburn with homeless animals to be sheltered there.

Winters said the new facility would be able to provide space if Rocklin were to again contract with Placer County. The average intake from Rocklin was around 500 animals a year, he said.

“It was only a sheltering contract,” Winters said. “They have two officers for animal control.”

Winters said that raising fees to handle additional costs is an option.

“But I don’t anticipate that,” Winters said. “We have to keep fees down or people will dump their animals on the street. And if adoption fees are too high, no one will adopt.”