ATASCADERO — The City of Atascadero will contribute more than $1.9 million toward the construction of a new animal shelter in San Luis Obispo after the City Council voted 3-1 to approve the plan Tuesday. Council member Roberta Fonzi voted against the proposal and council member Heather Moreno was absent.
The new facility will replace the original animal shelter, a 6,600-square-foot facility that the county says is no longer sufficient. The building has numerous leaks, problems with utilities and was built on top of a decommissioned landfill, causing problems with odors.
“It doesn’t meet the current expectations of animal control facilities,” Atascadero City Manager Rachelle Rickard said. “It may meet the expectations of the world in 1975, but the world is a different place now.”
Preliminary plans for the new facility include a 16,000-square-foot building with 3,000 square feet of outdoor runs, 27,000 square feet of large animal pens and 10,400 square feet of other covered areas. The budget for the entire project is estimated at $13.1 million and is not to exceed $14.5 million.
The costs to construct and finance the facility will be shared by San Luis Obispo County and the seven cities that currently contract with the county for animal services. The costs for the project have been allocated based on how many animals each city sends to the shelter, with Atascadero topping the list at 14.37 percent of the shelter usage. The city sends an average of 573 animals to the shelter each year.
Fonzi immediately questioned the high price tag associated with the new facility, which will cost the city approximately $1.9 million up front in addition to interest payments scheduled for yearly installments over the next 20 years.
“I’d like to know, why can’t we use modular buildings, why can’t we use steel buildings?” Fonzi asked. “We want to be compassionate — I have four rescue animals, two dogs, two cats from our North County shelter — we want to take care of the animals, but this just seems to be a Montecito-type of animal shelter, it’s a millionaire acres, it’s Beverly Hills, it’s gold plated.”
Fonzi also proposed using a stock plan for the shelter rather than an architect’s design or possibly expanding or refurbishing the existing shelter to save money.
“It’s a dog pound,” she said.
By Fonzi’s math, the city would be paying around $394 per animal that it sends to the shelter.
“That just seems like an excessive amount,” she said. “That’s a lot of dog food.”
Fonzi, a realtor, said that the average home in San Luis Obispo County costs around $342 per square foot and questioned why the shelter is going to cost an estimated $966 per square foot.
County Animal Services Manager Eric Anderson addressed Fonzi’s question, saying that the higher costs are due to the complexities of constructing an animal shelter, including things like advance plumbing and drainage systems, segregated ventilation so that diseases can’t spread and more “involved and complicated HVAC systems.”
“The facilities actually are quite complex, there’s a lot that goes into them,” he said. “The building itself is substantially more complicated in its design than a residential building would be.”
The city is required by state law to provide animal services and Atascadero Police Chief Jerel Haley was in charge of helping to find the most cost-effective solution for the city, vetting several other options including partnerships with the city of Paso Robles, the North County Humane Society and Woods Humane Society and the city providing its own animal services, all of which he said were not viable options. He pointed to a recent incident in the city in which more than 50 dogs were rescued from substandard living conditions.
“There’s no way, if we came across an instance like that, that the city of Atascadero alone would be able to provide for and create the infrastructure necessary to deal with something like that,” he said. “It just is an overwhelming project when you think about it in terms of building something from the ground up.”
Haley also said that partnering with the county is by far the least expensive option for providing animal services.
“It’s cheaper not only in terms of fiscal costs, but just the expense of staff time required to do it,” he said, adding that it would take at least two or three city staff members working full time for two or three years to put an animal services department into place. “While this is an expensive option — and I have some concerns and have voiced some of the same concerns the council has voiced tonight to the county — it certainly is better than getting five years down the road, being a couple of million dollars into a project and then finding out that it just doesn’t work and having to go back to the county to re-establish a partnership with them.”
The county won’t know the financing costs of the project until it is further along in the design process and knows how many of the seven cities want to be included in the project. Fonzi said that she was not comfortable voting for the project without all of the facts.
“We’re kind of funding a pig in a poke,” she said. “We don’t have the information at this point in time. This is a little uncomfortable for me. If I were going to buy a building, a hospital, a veterinary clinic, I’d like to know the actual cost, the terms, the length of time that I would be financing this. I don’t see that in our report and it makes me uncomfortable. We are taking a tremendous risk by entering into this without having all of the facts. I’m uncomfortable with using the public’s money for something that we don’t have all of the information. I can’t vote for this.”
According to Rickard, the county has set a deadline of Feb. 28 for cities to let them know if they want to be a part of the project and will require participation in order to continue a contract with them for animal services.
“It’s like blackmail,” Fonzi said.