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Humane Society preparing to fight for budget increase; commissioners asked to provide $25,000 in unbudgeted funds for Just Food

It may end up being an interesting evening at Lawrence City Hall tonight because commissioners are set to talk about two items people fiercely guard: pets and money.

Commissioners are nearing the key point in the 2014 budget process where they set the maximum amount of money they are willing to spend for the year.

It looks like a movement is afoot by the Lawrence Humane Society to fill City Hall tonight with people who will argue the city ought to spend more money on pets. Specifically, the Humane Society is seeking about an $80,000 increase in its 2014 budget. City Manager David Corliss is recommending a $20,000 increase, but leaders of the animal shelter are going to argue for the full amount.

Their argument is where the issue gets interesting. Nonprofit agencies ask for more money from the city all the time, but the Humane Society is a bit different of a breed of nonprofit agencies. That’s because the Humane Society is providing a service that by law the city would have to otherwise provide, according to Humane Society executive director Dori Villalon. State law requires that cities have a process in place to impound stray animals. The Humane Society provides that service to the city, and in return the city provided the shelter about $282,000 in funding in 2013.

But Villalon says the shelter recently has begun using a new computer software system that better tracks the actual expenses involved in housing stray animals. After analyzing the numbers, shelter leaders believe the current contract the shelter has with the city falls about $80,000 short of covering its expenses to meet the state-mandated requirement that cities impound stray animals for a certain period of time.

“It is imperative that we close this gap,” Villalon said in a recent letter to commissioners. “LHS (the shelter) isn’t looking to profit from the city contract, but simply cover the cost of providing service, thus protecting the future of our nonprofit organization.”

In case you are wondering, the shelter provided care to 1,665 stray or abandoned cats and dogs from the city in 2012.

When I asked Corliss last week about the shelter’s analysis that the city contract doesn’t cover the basic cost of services, he didn’t dispute it. I’m not sure he has confirmed those numbers either, but rather he said his recommended $20,000 increase is what he could justify without raising the property tax mill levy. Corliss estimates it would take a 0.07 mill increase to fully fund the Humane Society's budget request. That would be on top of a 0.4 mill increase Corliss is recommending to fund other budget issues.

That philosophy is commonly used by the city when determining how much funding it can provide to a host of social service agencies and nonprofits in the community. But the real question here is whether the city is providing financial support to a nonprofit or whether it is being asked to pay for services rendered.

Shelter leaders are indicating it is the latter. The shelter provides a service the city is required to provide, and the city needs to pay an amount to cover the cost of those services. That’s the argument.

Villalon indicated in her letter to commissioners that the shelter — perhaps for years — has been using donations from community members to cover the shortfall that exists between what it costs to provide the state-mandated care and what the city currently pays.

Villalon said the proper use for those donations is to provide care that goes over and above what is mandated by the state law. The law requires stray or abandoned animals to be kept for only a short period of time. Shelters, to avoid euthanizing animals, can choose to keep them for a longer period while they seek to find a family to adopt the pets.

According to the letter and the shelter’s Facebook page, shelter leaders are encouraging supporters of the Humane Society to show up at City Hall tonight to support the budget increase. Shelter leaders are couching the issue in terms of saving lives of animals. In an information sheet the shelter is distributing to supporters, the shelter says if the funding request isn’t granted, “euthanasia of treatable animals may increase.”

Historically, the euthanasia issue has been a hot-button issue in Lawrence, which is a community that seems to really be a pet-loving place. We’ll see how hot the issue gets tonight. Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. at City Hall.

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UPDATE: City Hall officials have gotten in touch with me today to clarify how they can provide the $25,000 in funding for Just Food without dipping into cash reserves or shortchanging other programs. City Manager David Corliss said he plans to reduce by $25,000 the amount of money that will be spent on sidewalk repair in the city's general fund. That money will be used to pay for the Just Food truck. The sidewalk work will be funded through the $25,000 in CDBG money that had been set aside with the thought it would fund the Just Food truck purchase. By shifting the sidewalk work out of the city's general fund to the CDBG fund, it will limit where the city can perform sidewalk projects. The CDBG funds must spent in one of the low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, such as Oread, Pinckney, East Lawrence or several others.

We’ll go from hot to cold to perhaps back to hot again. Commissioners as part of their consent agenda tonight will be asked to provide $25,000 in funding to the nonprofit food bank Just Food. The organization is run by City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer. The one-time funding will help the organization buy a refrigerated truck that will allow the food bank to collect meat, dairy and other such donations from grocery stores and convenience stores.

We reported in May that Just Food was seeking the city’s assistance to apply for federal funding for the truck through the city’s Community Development Block Program. But word has come back that the truck isn’t eligible for such funding, so now city staff members are recommending that $25,000 in local tax dollars be used to pay for the vehicle.

Plans for the truck do sound promising. Farmer has said it will be used to go to grocery stores, restaurants, convenience shops and other locations that often have to dispose of aging meat, dairy and produce. Currently, Just Food doesn’t have a way to transport refrigerated material from the stores to its distribution center in East Lawrence. Consequently, Farmer estimates grocers and other are throwing away “thousands of dollars of food per week.” Most of the perishable items are pulled off the shelves several days before their expiration dates, which gives Just Food time to distribute it to needy families.

But the timing of this $25,000 unbudgeted expenditure — which would be made in 2013 — may be unfortunate. City commissioners will be asked to approve it right before they are set to talk about how difficult it is to provide funding to worthy causes in 2014.

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