Muzzling wasn't limited to dogs at the Community and Protective Services Committee on Monday evening as committee members considered a contract for the provision of animal welfare services.
It was clear from the outset that interest in the issue was high. When I arrived at city hall a few minutes after the 7 o'clock starting time, I was greeted by protesters of all ages but mostly female carrying signs deploring the work of the current contractor, London Animal Care and Control (LACC) and its high kill rate. Once inside the building, I joined others in the lobby; the elevators had been cordoned off. It seems that the item on the floor dealing with taxi issues had attracted a full gallery of cab drivers. There was no more room.
From there, we were shepherded into a “holding” room used to handle overflow crowds. There were a couple of projection screens on which the live-streaming from council chambers allowed us to follow the debate on the floor. It took the better part of an hour but at the end of it, everyone seemed pleased with the result, a rarity in the history of city-taxi relations. The owners and drivers left happy; we were glad to get to get a seat in the gallery.
Orest Katolyk, Manager of Licensing and Municipal Law Enforcement, led off with the presentation. He had also been in charge of the taxi matter, but this was a tougher crowd. People who care about animal welfare are a passionate group.
They had demonstrated their passion a couple of years earlier at a public participation meeting on expanding animal welfare services. They had come in droves; people were seated in the window wells and standing in the hall to hear then manager Jay Stanford talk about how the city wanted to move from control to care. He had been soundly applauded. It was clear he had the respect of the animal welfare advocates.
What had loomed large in the hopes of the crowd at that time was the expiry of the contract with LACC, the private for profit company run by Urban Animal Management (UAM), which had held the contract since 1982. Although some minor improvements had been made in that contract when I joined council in 2006, it was very much a control model with pets being viewed as a public nuisance.
But despite the knowledge that the contract would be up for grabs at the end of 2012, little seemed to happen. A request for proposals (RFP) that should have gone out early in 2012 was stalled. The introduction of a new council at the end of 2010 was soon followed by departmental administrative reorganization. Animal welfare moved from Environmental Services to the Building Division. Orest Katolyk was put in charge of the process with little time to prepare. The RFP was put on hold and the contract with LACC extended for another year, maybe a year and a half if needed.
It was now a year later, and Katolyk was ready to make his recommendation.
The city had received four proposals which were quickly narrowed to two, he explained. An expert panel of three had evaluated the two proposals, one from UAM, the other from a cooperative of rescue groups, Progressive Animal Welfare Services (PAWS). They had agreed unanimously that UAM had a better track record of financial stability and they had an up and running shelter. Some thought had been given to a split model in which dealing with cat issues would be given to PAWS, leaving education, dog muzzling, and other dog issues, as well as spay and neuter, to UAM. However, since PAWS had suggested that the cost of that would be about $1.3 million, it was a no go. Instead, $2.3 million would go to UAM with an extra $600,000 to expand their facilities so they could have a veterinary clinic. No longer would cats be put to death because they had minor health problems. They could be treated and placed for adoption should homes be available. The total cost would be $2.9 million but part of the plan was to do licensing blitzes which would net about $1.3 million in revenue, all of which would go to the city. And the city itself would introduce some other initiatives in terms of establishing limits on number of pets, spay/neuter programs and feral cat programs.
This, he suggested, was how council could meet its objective of ensuring that every companion animal has a caring and responsible home.
The mayor was perplexed. Although he hadn't been at the 2011 meeting, he understood that there was going to be a move from the control model to more emphasis on care, more like the Calgary model that had been much touted; what assurance could he get that this wasn't simply a re-issuance of the same old contract? Where in this proposal were the pro-adoption and care aspects? What about the split model? How much would that have cost? It looked to him like just another tender for control.
Hearty applause from the gallery greeted these comments. Committee chair Denise Brown reminded the spectators that they were just that; they weren't there to participate.
Katolyk tried to explain. Calgary was different. They had a lot of money from issuing heavy duty fines. If you didn't license your dog or cat, that was $250 and if you didn't pay, there would be a warrant for your arrest. We don't have anything that heavy-handed here, so we have to look to the tax base and we need to keep taxes down. The "care" comes through expanding vet services. Although LACC euthanizes only 3.3 cats per 1000 population, still, that's 1100 or so cats, most of which have only minor ailments. A little medical care and they'd be ready for adoption.
But the idea had been to actually reduce “euthanization”, Bill Armstrong noted. In 2012 over 1200 dogs and cats had been killed; could they get that down to under 1000 with this contract over a couple of years?
Katolyk was uncertain. It would be hard to come up with a target. But he was looking into alternatives to euthanasia. There was a “barn cat” program, very successful in Jackson, Florida. They were doing it in St. Thomas too, and probably soon would be in London, in the agricultural areas. The cats would fend for themselves by keeping down the mice.
From where I was sitting, it seemed like the only difference between this and just dumping your unwanted animals in the country was that the cats would first be spayed and neutered.
It was becoming clear that none of the committee members was particularly thrilled with the new contract. But what could they actually say or do about it?
That's what Joni Baechler wanted to know. What was the legal position? What were the rules about interfering in a tendering process? She didn't want the city ending up in a lawsuit.
It was a reasonable concern, John Freeman, the manager of purchasing and supply informed her. Councillors have to respect the integrity of the process. They can't interfere. That was their by-law.
It was an awkward moment. What could they discuss, then?
Bachler had been there, years earlier, when the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (AWAC) had brought Bill Bruce to London to discuss the Calgary model he had implemented there. She liked the model and thought London was moving toward it. Surely, the provider had been made aware of that. But she didn't see much of it in this proposed contract. This wouldn't likely lead to a lower kill rate.
Katolyk was on the defensive. Instead of the fines, like the Calgary model, he was proposing licensing blitzes. Enforcement agents see a cat in the window, check to see if it is registered and if not, they knock on the door. People don't like it but it brings in a lot of revenue, 100% of it to the city for its programs. Fines go into a different pot.
Then he dropped an interesting tidbit: bringing this report back had taken time because there were hassles with the insurance company over the vehicles that the city provides to this private for profit company so that it can enforce the by-laws. The insurance company has difficulty with the fact that the drivers of the vehicles are not in the employ of the city!
It was an explanation that didn't escape Denise Brown's attention. Since when, she wondered, does the city provide vehicles for its private contractors?
Good question. And since when does the city provide for capital expenditures for a private contractor to renovate its buildings? The city had done that in 2007 by funding an expansion for handling discarded pitbulls.
Baechler had expected that, after all this time, there would have been a radical change in the way in which animal services were delivered. “How do we write in what we want in terms of the kill rate?” she wanted to know. She wanted to see the metrics.
Judy Bryant had a question that also seemed to have no answer. “How are animals euthanized?” she asked. And how can you be sure that what they say is happening is really happening?
He didn't have the expertise to deal with that, Katolyk said. He left that up to the provincial ministry and it did random inspections. All had been satisfactory. And the evaluation committee had gone through the facility and thought that it was fine. But how the animals were killed, he didn't say. He didn't mention the complaints about the facility made by previous employees.
When it came to Harold Usher's turn to speak, he suggested they listen instead to two people who had asked for delegate status, both members of AWAC. But first, they had to be advised that they could only speak in general terms, not to the contract being proposed or to the proposal that had been rejected. That was the rule.
AWAC chair, Sara Rans, was nonplussed. What could she say without getting into trouble? She had planned to talk about the concerns expressed at her committee meeting, but she was nervous about mentioning that now. But, she pointed out, the work that was being done in fostering and adoptions was being done by the rescue groups.
It was a point that many in the gallery had been waiting to hear. They clapped in approval. They were sick of hearing how LACC has increased its adoption rate when it had simply passed that responsibility on to the rescue groups. It seemed like nothing had changed, that the city would settle for the status quo with its emphasis on control. She hoped there was a better way but she didn't know how she could articulate that, given the muzzle that had been placed on her. “I am very fearful,” she said.
“This,” waving a spiral bound document, “and the RFP do not match what has been presented today,” she concluded. She was holding the 2011 report on Expanding Animal Welfare Services.
She was followed by Diane Fortney of Animal Outreach Cat Rescue. Given the caveats, she too had had to do a hasty revision of her remarks.
What staff had presented did not match the RFP, she agreed. The focus was on control, not care. The Calgary model had been misrepresented. The fines were a small matter in the overall functioning of that model; they accounted for less than 1% of the resources. It was licensing; people lined up to get their licensing cards which provided all kinds of perks from sponsoring local businesses. She was appalled at the suggestion of proactive blitzes, of people looking into your window to see if you had an unlicensed cat. Was that something they wanted to pour their resources into? Would bylaw enforcement consider going into your backyard to see if you had junk? No, they would only do so if they had a complaint. And gloating about a minor decrease in the number of animals killed! There hadn't been any change in the city's kill rate for 25 years. There were 171 jurisdictions in the US which had a no kill policy, where 90% of the animals going into a shelter came out alive. The only reason that there had been any reduction at all in the number of cats being killed was that the city paid the rescue groups $250 for every cat they took to foster. And furthermore, when a mother cat was killed with her kittens, LACC just counted it as one cat. That's how they kept the numbers down. It was a private for profit business. There was no transparency, no accountability.
“You have heard for many years about the wishes of our community,” she concluded. “I beg you not to betray the promises made to the community.”
The plea resounded in the applause from the gallery. She hadn't been muzzled.
At this point, a small contingent from LACC left the room.
Earlier speakers had suggested that more time was needed to get this right. It was not just the contract, it was all the other pieces too, the community initiatives, the spay/neuter programs, the number of pets allowed per household. They should give a further extension to the contract for another six months and get this right. It was unanimous.
It was not a good night for the staff member who had been handed this task in midstream. Surely, those who maneuvred the administrative reorganization should have known that you are not likely to realize a shift from control to care by shifting the responsibility to bylaw enforcement in the building division.
But one has to wonder: how has one company managed to hold onto a contract for more than 30 years? No wonder UAM has a better track record than PAWS; it has a monopoly paid for by the taxpayers, both in operating and, it seems, some capital costs. Who else gets that kind of a deal? And how do you change it if those who make the decision can't have input for fear of jeopardizing the competition that never really existed?
And how do you get a match between an RFP and a contract?