It’s not easy to recap a nearly six-hour meeting in a few (maybe more than a few) paragraphs, but we’re going to try. Bear with us through the bad news (Part One) and we’ll get to the really good stuff (Part Two). Eventually.
The budget, the layoffs and the RIFFs.
Interim Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata, the former director of Code, who helped Lt. Walton direct the much-needed turn-around at DAS last fall, knew he’d be facing some tough questions and he was prepared. First, he reminded the standing-room only crowd that for the past three years, city budget cuts have taken their toll on virtually every other city department, while Dallas Animal Services remained virtually untouched.
Why? Municipal budgets often lag behind the national economy, good or bad. The reason: They rely on property taxes for a large portion of their revenue. Property values are only assessed once a year, so the revenue the city earns doesn’t change weekly, or monthly, only yearly. If the stock market crashes in January, most cities and towns won’t begin to feel the effect until the end of the year when home values are assessed and property taxes reduced. In a City the size of Dallas, it takes even longer before the full effect of a dip in the national economy is felt. That’s because it’s impossible to re-assess every property every year. Instead, the city is divided into sections and often only one section is assessed each year. The first year of a recession, the effect is only a fraction of what it may eventually be. The second year, a little more, and the third year, even more.
So now it’s DAS turn to do their share to help balance the budget, and to his credit, Zapata – working on a plan originally developed by the Walton to “right size” the department, has managed to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from Animal Services budget with only a minor reduction in staff. This year (fiscal year 2010-2011), DAS has 131 staff members. For fiscal year 2011-2012, which begins October 1st, DAS will have 130 staff members. 25+ senior animal control officer positions and 30+ animal keeper positions are being done away with as part of the RIF (reduction in force) process to save money, but 7 new supervisor positions are being created, open positions in the field are being filled, and 34 temporary contract workers are being brought in.
How does only one job loss result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings? Most of it comes from replacing full time animal keepers with temporary contract workers who cost less money. But a lot of people seemed very concerned about the level of care the animals at DAS will receive from contract workers, so Mr. Zapata addressed that concern first. The temporary workers are fully screened by the agency the City contracts with before they even arrive at the shelter. And although they weren’t initially expected to be in place until October 1st, they have been brought in early to insure they have plenty of time to get every bit of training they need from experienced animal keepers.
Twenty new customer service representative positions are being created, and those currently working in the shelter are being urged to apply for them. The expectation is that in addition to providing support for the adoption staff, they can help oversee the new animal keepers on an on-going basis.
Mr. Zapata also pointed out that temporary workers who fail to live up to expectations can simply be sent back to the agency – no questions asked. On the other hand, it often takes months – if not years – to muddle through all the steps required by civil service before a city employee can be fired, no matter how poorly they do their job. Case in point: Tyrone McGill was indicated by a Grand Jury on animal cruelty charges over a year ago and still collects over $ 60,000/year.
Another key difference is that by using temporary contract workers, Dallas Animal Services managers can easily request additional workers when needed, bypassing the often time-consuming, red-tape wrapped hiring process required by the City. The ability to “scale-up or scale-down” is important because attendance (or lack thereof) has been a big problem at DAS, and has, at times, resulted in a reduced level of care for the animals.
Cruelty investigations are being outsourced as well, and that’ll save even more money. Initial calls for animal cruelty will be answered by DAS officers, who will assess the situation, then transfer situations requiring further investigation to an agency like the SPCA of Texas, whose officers – unlike DAS officers – are licensed peace officers. There’s a lot still to be worked out here, so details are scarce and the transition probably won’t happen until October.
Mr. Zapata also provided some insight into the reorganizational part of what’s happening at Dallas Animal Services. The current organizational chart shows one division manager, four managers (shelter, field, business, and vets), and five supervisors, with a staff of 131 - a staff to management ration that would make most MBAs cringe. FYI: Those titles aren’t the official ones. They are similar, but I hope easier to understand that manager 1, manage 2, etc. The new org chart, once all is said and done, should show a Program Manager (think Chairman/CEO – Jody Jones), a division manager (COO – someone with experience to run the operations part), four (maybe five?) managers (some from inside and some from out), and approximately twelve supervisors.
The RIF’d senior animal control officers are being encouraged to apply for those new supervisor positions in hopes all will be filled with people experienced in animal welfare. Those that aren’t interested in the supervisor positions, will fill the open positions for ACOs in the field. A larger number of animal services officers will be sharing euthanasia duty, so compassion fatigue and burnout should decrease.
Even with all these changes, the goal is to keep officers in the field 24/7. Which brings up yet another concern we heard - the night drop boxes may have to be closed overnight because there won’t be anyone at the shelter from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. If that happens, some on the Commission seemed to think people would still dump their pets – in the parking lot, or in crates or cardboard boxes at the front door - where they’ll be forced to fend for themselves until morning. But the alternative is to leave the boxes open all night and have a field services officer swing by whenever possible to check the boxes. That might be a better option, but it’s possible an injured or sick animal could be stuck in the night drop for an hour or two – maybe more – with no one around.
Another thing the Commissioners were concerned about was that all the RIF’d employees applying for the new positions are being made to take some new civil service test. It sounds like it’s something human resources has instituted for all new city employees, although it was hard to understand. So far, twenty DAS staff members have taken the test and only 8 have passed. Some of those that failed are seasoned animal services officers who have been helping pets and their owners for years, and the Commission wants them to stay. There wasn’t much information provided about what was on the test, but Mr. Zapata has decided to put together a prep course for it, and everyone should be able to take the prep class and then retake the test.
So how did a reorganization and reduction in force that sounds, if not justifiable, then at least palatable, go so terribly wrong? Code Compliance screwed it up. Surprise. First, the new interim director of Code Compliance didn’t do a very good job of conveying to the RIF’d employees that new positions were being created and that if they wanted to stay, they could. Apparently no one in Code Compliance realized that if all the RIF’d animal keepers were required to spend the day at City Hall, there would be no one to feed, water, or clean up after the animals. They didn’t tell anyone at DAS that they were pulling all these people out of the shelter for the entire day, so by late afternoon when the skeleton crew remaining at the shelter realized the animal keepers weren’t coming back, it was up to our newly hired program manager and two long-time staff members to feed, water and clean all 700+ animals. They simultaneously RIF’d the senior animal control officers leaving no one to do euthanasia. Rumor has it staff had to be borrowed from the SPCA of Texas to help out there. And there have been purchasing issues as well – lots of them. DAS ran out of cat carriers because no one re-ordered them (the implication was the person who was supposed to order them was RIF’d).
There are lots of other examples as well – it seems like it all boils down to a) a lack of communication between the new Code Director Jimmy Martin and DAS, and b) micromanagement by some folks in Code who the Commission has been told repeatedly aren’t involved with DAS at all anymore (perhaps if Mary Suhm is reading this she’ll look into that one). Frankly Mr. Martin isn’t winning any friends in the animal welfare community. He didn’t endear himself to anyone at the meeting. He rarely spoke, letting Mr. Zapata handle the critics and Jody Jones deliver the reports. In fact, from where we were sitting, he seemed pretty disinterested – as though most of what was going on was more of a bother to him than anything else. Luckily with Mr. Zapata, DAS at least has a chance – I guess it does pay to have “friends in high places”.
The bottom line: Expect two more months of craziness, but with the help of an amazing new shelter manager the long-term result – hopefully – will be a lean, mean, sustainable, fighting machine that focuses on compassion, animal welfare, responsible pet ownership, public safety, and increasing the live release rate.
Stay tuned for Part Two: The Good News. It’s pretty good.