Eight years later, El Dorado County still lacking new animal shelter

04/23/2012 12:00 AM

04/23/2012 9:40 AM

Not much has gone right in El Dorado County's eight-year effort to build an animal shelter.

The county set aside $7.3 million for the project, but has already spent more than 20 percent with little to show, and without an acceptable new source of funds.

A piece of property purchased for a shelter in 2006 looks now like a white elephant, all but unbuildable.

That purchase obligates the county to build an expensive road to the property that may never serve a shelter.

County supervisors have reversed course at least three times, swinging between building from scratch or retrofitting an existing facility, with each reversal incurring delays and expenses.

Most recently, the board decided again to find a building to retrofit.

"In today's market, you simply cannot build what you can buy," Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly told the Board of Supervisors in its most recent meeting, April 17.

"I feel very optimistic," said Henry Brzezinski, animal services chief. "I think we're going to find the right place that will work for our program."

Supervisors continue to hedge, making observers nervous.

At the meeting, Supervisor Ron Briggs suggested a new property to build on and Supervisor Jack Sweeney said it's too soon to completely rule out the property bought in 2006.

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," Sweeney said.

"I remain hopeful, but based on the long history and all the twists and turns and after the comments (by the board), I don't have a lot of confidence right now," said Barbara Lee of the Animal Shelter Coalition for El Dorado County. "I don't know why I would."

The problem is not just birds in hand. It's dogs, cats, horses, goats – even emus and llamas that need shelter services in the rural county.

"We deal with the whole gamut," Brzezinski said.

El Dorado County currently operates a facility in Placerville where a cat-allergic person wishing to adopt a dog must go through a lobby that functions as the cat-adoption display area, he said.

Quarantine areas are sometimes insufficient and the facility lacks a suitable dog exercise area.

Administrative staff members, including animal control officers, work about a half-mile away.

Horses are kept, under contract, in El Dorado Hills, meaning extra staff travel time.

"We've never really had an adequate shelter in this county," said Charlene Welty, president of People for Animal Welfare in El Dorado County, or PAWED, a support organization for the shelter.

"One of our main concerns is we need to bring this all together," she said.

The county agreed and set the money aside long ago. It acquired 10 acres near Diamond Springs for $450,000 and planned to build there.

In 2010, the county decided to move the shelter to an existing business park instead, but that fell through, and planning resumed for the Diamond Springs property.

Now, the real estate climate and fund shortage is returning the focus to a shelter in an existing commercial structure.

However, the 2006 purchase included an agreement to build an access road serving the shelter and an adjacent property.

"At this point, yes, that's part of the purchase and sales agreement," said Laura Schwartz, budget analyst in the chief administrative office.

No matter where the county puts the shelter, it has to build a road on the old property – another $1.4 million from the $5.8 million left, Schwartz said.

"We call it the road to nowhere," Welty said.

The county doesn't want to put the shelter there, in part because a new facility would cost $2 million to $4 million more than is in the budget, staff estimates.

Finding that money would mean cutting other programs – senior or veterans' programs, for example – or using funds targeted for reserves or capital programs. All are politically unacceptable options.

In addition, oaks on the property must be protected, a matter complicated by a January state appeals court ruling that invalidated key parts of the county's oak woodlands mitigation plan.

All this makes the buy-and-retrofit option the most attractive one – especially since the county's permit to operate in the current location might expire before a brand-new facility could be built.

The county has hired a project manager to expedite things and has promised monthly reports to the board to make sure things don't get sidetracked.

That's the hope. Things have gone wrong before.

As Daly acknowledged to the board, "We, the county, have fumbled many times."


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