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Healdsburg, animal shelter officials discussing worst-case scenario


With the survival of the Healdsburg Animal Shelter in question, city officials and directors of the organization are discussing contingency plans for animal control services.

On the heels of a public letter to the community appealing for funds, Shelter Board Chairman Art Feagles said this week that the shelter only has enough money to keep the doors open until September.

He said there is a $200,000 shortfall in the shelter's approximate $500,000 annual budget.

"The situation is probably, at this point, the most stressed it's ever been," he said.

Shelter and city officials confirmed they have been meeting to discuss alternatives for handling animal control.

The city pays the animal shelter $115,000 per year to handle injured, stray, vicious and unwanted animals, as well as for adoptions and licensing.

But most of the shelter's budget comes from community donations, which dropped as the organization became embroiled in controversy over a partially built $3.5 million new shelter, infighting and rapid turnover on the board of directors.

"Part of the discussion is, if they can't fulfill the agreement, what are our next steps as a city?" Police Lt. Matt Jenkins said Friday.

The police department is in charge of overseeing the contract with the shelter, which expires in November.

"We're looking at different options if something were to happen," Jenkins said.

He said the city could find another provider in the area to step in, such as Sonoma County Animal Care and Control. He said the job could also go to another animal welfare organization, or the police department might handle some of the animal control duties.

Jenkins said Healdsburg already pays the county $6,700 annually to handle animal control after hours and on weekends, when the Healdsburg Animal Shelter is closed.

If the shelter is forced to close indefinitely, he said the approximate 45 dogs and cats that are there now could be placed in foster care, rescue organizations or other shelters.

In an interview earlier in the week, Feagles, who took over in January, said part of the challenge for the shelter is that it is takes in virtually all animals, regardless of behavioral issues and physical health.

The shelter is billed as "no kill" and prides itself that 94 percent of animals leave in safe and healthy condition.

"The shelter's euthanasia rate of less than 4 percent is remarkably low when compared to national averages for public shelters, reported to be as high as 60 percent for dogs and 70 percent for cats," the board of directors said in a statement printed in last week's Healdsburg Tribune.

But the low no-kill rate comes at a substantial expense. Directors said the average cost per animal is in excess of $750, less than one-third of which is provided by fees and other income. The gap, they said, is not being covered by public donations.

Feagles said the shelter suffered a $120,000 net operating loss last year and $100,000 in 2011.

He said the euthanasia rate may have to go up.

"If it doesn't have the financial support to be the low-mortality shelter it presently is, it will have to change its mission," he said.

He said the organization's reserves were exhausted in trying to complete the new 7,500-square-foot building that has sat empty and unfinished for a year and a half, mired in a lawsuit over construction and design defects after the contractor declared bankruptcy.

The shelter also suspended a major fundraising event last year until it could assure donors that the money was going toward ongoing operations and not the incomplete shelter, Feagles said.

The white elephant of a building sits across Westside Road from the existing dank, cinder-block shelter built in 1960, where nine paid employees work along with a cadre of volunteers.

Feagles said the unfinished building may need an additional $1 million to be completed.

Until the lawsuit is settled, he said, "I don't honestly know if we'll be able to complete the shelter or not."

Depositions are still being taken and no date has been set for a trial, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.