In failing to accept a five year deal offered by the Niagara County SPCA in 2013, Mayor Paul A. Dyster caused the soon to come explosion in the cost of animal control services in Niagara Falls.
This contract - at $180,000 per year would have taken the city through the end of 2018 -- eliminating the need for a new animal shelter that Dyster now proposes with $3.2 million of casino cash to build.
The reason Dyster gives for building a new shelter is that the SPCA said it will stop accepting animals from the city in 2016 or 2017.
If blunders are to be measured by the pain it causes taxpayers, this one is a whopper.
The Long Foolish Road to Blunders
From 2009 until 2012, the city was paying $83,520 per year to the SPCA, which, in turn, euthanized many healthy animals.
In late 2011, the SPCA's euthanasia practices came to public notice, causing protests and media coverage.
In the weeks that followed, the SPCA was in turmoil as it fired its director, elected a new board and repurposed itself to work towards a "no-kill" goal.
After the SPCA's new board of directors hired Andrew Bell as executive director, Dyster got into the no-kill act.
First he threatened the SPCA in a letter, dated Jan. 31, 2012, where he told the struggling leadership of SPCA that "the City must have the immediate assurance … that the inhumane dispatching of animals will cease and desist."
Later he wrote a letter to Bell, dated Oct. 4, 2012, where he said he wanted to "incorporate (no-kill) into any contractual relationship the city enters into with the [SPCA] moving forward."
Bell, writing Dyster on Oct. 15, 2012, said he "look[ed] forward to working with the city to create a true no-kill community."
With a contract due for 2013 and no kill as a goal, the SPCA proposed a new funding structure for the city - $180,000 per year - up from the old price of $83,520.
Although the boost was almost $100,000 per year, Bell said that $180,000 was less than it cost the SPCA to serve Niagara Falls. The SPCA said actual costs were $230,000 for 2012.
Dyster said the city could not afford to pay it. For months he used representatives to negotiate to get the SPCA to lower their price. The new board insisted the SPCA no longer subsidize Niagara Falls animal control.
Knowing however that the SPCA was reeling financially with a significant drop in donors after their messy public overhaul, apparently felt the SPCA needed Niagara Falls and the $83,520 the ciyt paid then Niagara Falls needed them.
With 2012 almost over, and without a contract for 2013, Bell wrote to Dyster, on Dec. 11, 2012, that, absent a new contract, the SPCA would bill the city monthly. The fee would be based on costs - about $19,000 per month.
Dyster, as his actions later proved in court, felt the SPCA had no right to raise prices until the city agreed to the price.
When the SPCA bill came in January 2013, Dyster ignored it and instructed the controller to pay the monthly equivalent of one twelfth of the old contract price - $6,930.
For six months, the SPCA reluctantly accepted these payments while they pursued a long term contract.
With mounting pressure from the SPCA, Dyster drew up a contract, at his price.
Dyster Reverses on No-Kill
Perhaps as a negotiating ploy, he reversed his position on no-kill.
His contract, dated July 1, 2013, did not require the SPCA to use no-kill formulas for Niagara Falls animals.
Article 4 of Dyster's contract read that "[The SPCA] shall provide, maintain and operate a shelter for seized dogs and shall provide facilities to humanely euthanize and make available dogs for adoption in compliance with Article 7 of the [NYS] Agriculture and Market law."
Article 7 of the Agriculture and Market law provides that "any dog unredeemed at the expiration of the appropriate redemption period, (the) dog shall then be made available for adoption or euthanized."
The "appropriate period," is after three days.
The SPCA declined this chance at saving money by euthanizing healthy animals and countered with a five year contract - with no-kill provisions - for $180,000 per year.
In a letter, dated July 3, 2013, Dyster said, "I understand the pressures under which the [SPCA] board is operating as you try to stabilize the organization's finances and simultaneously move towards a 'no kill' philosophy. We hope that the [SPCA] staff and board understand that while the city is sympathetic to your difficulties and dilemmas, we face our own limitations in terms of our ability to fund."
The SPCA's treasurer, David A. Urban, CPA, said, "Mayor Dyster's representatives failed to appreciate the fact that, at $180,000 per year, the Niagara County SPCA as a non-profit entity would still be subsidizing the city's animal control services."
Then the SPCA said that, if the city would not agree to a five year contract, they could pay $15,000 on a monthly basis, which is what $180,000 per year comes to monthly.
If not, the SPCA would suspend service.
On July 8, Dyster urged the SPCA to "schedule a meeting … to sit down one more time in an effort to avoid" the termination of services.
A meeting was set for July 10.
While Dyster called for the meeting, he did not attend, sending subordinates in his place. At that meeting these representatives told the SPCA they weren't going to pay the higher price.
"We made every reasonable attempt to reach an agreement. We even arranged a final meeting on the day of our board vote - at the written request of the Mayor - only to have him fail to show up," SPCA Board President Michelle D. Madigan said at the time.
After Dyster's no-show, the SPCA board voted to cut off services on July 15.
"It is disappointing and sad that the city took such a tough negotiation stance, when they had no 'Plan B' for controlling or housing their stray animals," Madigan said.
Dyster however had a plan.
Dyster Loses in Court
After consulting with city attorneys he came up with the notion that the city could force the SPCA to continue services - at the price the Dyster wanted to pay.
City lawyers filed for an injunction to prevent the SPCA from stopping services.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. signed a temporary restraining order, halting the SPCA's plan to cut off of services for July 15 and ordered the city and SPCA into court on July 18.
There Kloch told the city that the SPCA is not a government agency, but a not for profit and are not legally required to provide governmental services. What's more, a not for profit has the right to set prices for services.
He told the city that it did not have to accept the SPCA's price, but the SPCA, if it chose, could suspend services.
Kloch ordered the SPCA to continue providing services for one week. And after that if the city did not agree to their price they were free to cut off services.
Dyster, talking tough, but with no bargaining chips, since the city had no alternative plan to house stray animals, told the media he wanted proof that the SPCA was justified in raising the price of animal services.
"Explain to us why this is justified, in detail," Dyster said. Without such justification, "we can't take that to Council. It would be shot down, and justifiably so."
Then fatally - as if a bad angel was watching over Niagara Falls taxpayers that day, Dyster abandoned the idea of a five year contract.
He said he wanted only a six-month contract.
With no alternatives for animal control, the council had little choice but to approve the deal, hiking the city's monthly payments from $6950 to $15,000 per month for six months.
Dyster Forgoes Long Term Contract
At this juncture, a critical one as time will tell, since the city was paying $15,000 a month anyway, one cannot help but wonder why Dyster did not accept the five year deal the SPCA and lock in the price.
The SPCA was still willing to make the deal. They even agreed to collect the city's dog licensing fees at the shelter when a dog is adopted by a city resident and send the money to the city as part of the deal.
But it was not to be.
Some insidious agent of the darkest, foulest nether worlds was making his maleficent influence come to bear on future taxpayers of Niagara Falls.
Dyster did not pursue a long term contract.
He did not lock in the price at $180,000.
When the city's six month contract expired on Dec 31, 2013, the SPCA demanded a new one year contract for the city for $198,000 - $18,000 more than what they offered the city the year before.
The city council - having no animal control alternatives - approved it.
Shortly after, the window closed - perhaps forever- for inexpensive animal control services for Niagara Falls.
The SPCA hired a new executive director, Amy Lewis. Faced with a strong commitment to no-kill and the overabundance of unadoptable pit bulls from Niagara Falls, filling all her kennels, she declared that in either 2016 or 2017, the SPCA would stop accepting animals from Niagara Falls.
She left the door open however for a new, more expensive contract with the city, which will require the city to subsidize a new building at the SPCA to house unadoptable animals [pit bulls] coming from Niagara Falls and money to hire staff to manage the animals.
How much the SPCA would demand has not been disclosed. We can be sure it will be in excess of the $180,000 Dyster once had on the table.
Still, it might cost taxpayers less to subsidize a building for animals at the SPCA and a few more SPCA staffers, than to spend $3.2 million for a new animal shelter and hire a whole staff of city workers to operate it.
Dyster's Starts 'Business'
During his state of the city address, on February 18, Dyster said nothing about negotiating with the SPCA. Instead he showed a slide of an abused cat, explained that the Niagara Falls Police added an Animal Control Officer and that the city purchased an animal control truck with state of the art animal rescue and transportation equipment.
He then declared Niagara Falls is now in the "animal control business."
He did not mention the cost of the "business" which is a business that has little revenue and many costs.
A police officer paid to enforce animal ordinances, with salary, overtime and benefits will cost more than $110,000 per year alone. The new animal control vehicle with maintenance, fuel and additional equipment might be another $10,000 a year.
Between those two items the city is set to spend $120,000 - or two thirds of the $180,000 the SPCA asked for.
Then there is the cost to operate the shelter.
How Much Will it Cost Taxpayers?
Employees. Equipment. Utilities. Animal food, spay/neuter services, an active adoption and fostering program, euthanasia when necessary.
Proper veterinary care. An initial vetting is, according to animal control sources, roughly $350 per dog and $300 per cat.
During 2012, the SPCA handled 899 calls from the city. Of these calls, 611 were for stray animals and 366 of the strays were pit bulls - more than one per day.
If a shelter takes in 611 animals - the cost of veterinary services to the city will be more than $100,000.
Then there is medicine -- and ongoing vet care, monthly flea and heartworm preventative, vaccine updates, and trips for emergencies or illnesses.
Proper housing - shelters need divided spaces – requires keeping males and females in separate areas, an elimination area separate from an eating/sleeping area, and daily direct human contact. And someone has to clean up animal excrement.
If the new animal shelter is no-kill - as Dyster has suggested - costs will be higher since, over time, abandoned pit bulls will increase in numbers- many of whom will be too aggressive to adopt - and will be housed in cages the shelter for life.
Staff members will need to be trained to observe the warning signs that could lead to declining physical or emotional wellbeing of these animals who will spend their lives in cages.
As for total operating costs, no one knows for certain.
Other Cities Pay Plenty
Racine, WI., (pop 78,000), studied building an animal shelter and concluded it would cost $554,000 a year to staff a 10,000 square feet building that would handle the city's estimated 1,318 animals annually.
When Clark County WA. considered building their own animal shelter, a study concluded it would cost more than $1 million per year to operate in a 10,000-square-foot building.
The Cheyenne Animal Shelter which is no-kill and consequently more expensive - reported a $1.6 million operating cost for 2009, which services an area with a population of 95,809, about twice the population of Niagara Falls.
Based on these figures, a Niagara Falls Municipal Animal Shelter might cost a minimum of $500,000 and possibly more than $800,000 per year.
Meanwhile Dyster continues to head full steam into the "business" which means unprecedented animal control expenditures.
He retained the engineering firm of Clark Patterson Lee to draw design plans for the shelter. Sources at city hall say Dyster wants to use the old Public Safety Building on Hyde Park.
As much as $3.2 million up front and more than $500,000 plus per year for animal control services in Niagara Falls.
Funny this could have cost taxpayers only $180,000 per year.
|A new and costly business.