A proposal to outsource the city’s animal control operation to a non-profit drew protests at a hearing Wednesday from municipal workers who raised concerns about job security, diversity and class bias.
A resolution, introduced by Council members Jolie Justus and Teresa Loar, would make KC Pet Project responsible for picking up stray or dangerous animals and investigating cases of abuse and neglect. The group has operated the city’s animal shelter on Raytown Road for the last five years.
Justus and Loar said it would bring more efficiency and attention to training, education and other best practices in animal welfare. Many other localities have privatized animal control operations.
“This is part of a nationwide trend,” Loar told the council’s finance governance and neighborhoods committee.
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There is evidence that current public-private partnership has been a troubled one. A recent study by City Auditor Douglas Jones found that “poor communication and a lack of trust” have hindered operations and made collaboration between KC Pet Project and animal control officers difficult.
Differences in operating philosophies have been one source of tension, investigators said. Animal control officers, who respond to about 16,000 calls annually, are more inclined to impound animals rather than try to gain owner compliance through education, an approach favored by KC Pet Project.
The audit also cited poor management oversight, lax enforcement of dangerous dog registration, and lack of follow up to make sure that cruelty or neglect violations have been resolved.
The city’s 21 animal control workers are concerned that their fate has already been decided.
KC Pet Project has made no secret of its interest in taking over field operations as part of its planned move into a new shelter in Swope Park, to be partly financed by the general obligation bond package voters approved in April. The Pet Project advocated heavily for the measure with a “Raise the Woof” campaign.
Loar and Justus said they have been assured by City Manager Troy Schulte that the proposed consolidation would not lead to layoffs. They said other city jobs could be found for displaced employees. But John Wood director of Neighborhood and Housing Services, which oversees animal control, said “exit packages” are also a possibility.
Fifteen of the 21 animal control staff are represented by Local 500 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. Local president Robert Patrick said the city was “in direct violation” of its contract by discussing privatization without consulting with the union.
“I think this is putting the cart before the horse,” Patrick said.
City workers told the committee they did not dispute many of the audit findings, but said that with five positions vacant for months they have been shorthanded. They called for a chance to correct the problems before any changes are made.
Marilyn Barnett, a former animal control officer who works as a customer service representative for the division, said the job is “heart wrenching and soul scarring.”
“To not give animal control a chance to improve on shortcomings means we are not getting the justice we deserve,” she said.
Tensions over class and diversity also surfaced. About two-third of the career animal control division employees are minorities, while KC Pet Project is largely white and relies on volunteers.
“They believe poor people shouldn’t have dogs,” said animal control officer Daniel Martin, meaning that some low-income owners have trouble getting impounded pets back because of licensing and other expenses.
KC Pet Project, which had representatives at the hearing but did not address the committee, disputed the allegation. It said the charges are set by the city and that the organization tries to underwrite some of the costs for eligible owners.
“We work with owners every single day,”said Tori Fugate, director of marketing and communications. “Best practice is to do whatever can be done to keep animals in their homes.”
The committee took no action on the resolution and said it would hold more hearings.