Animal shelter still on hold

By From page A1 | April 12, 2011

El Dorado County supervisors on Monday sent staff back to their desks to hammer out some timelines for moving forward on the county’s proposed new animal shelter. After three hours of testimony during Monday’s special hearing, the board directed new project manager Kris Payne to provide concrete answers to specific issues regarding progress on the project.

Along with development and construction timelines for the final project, the actual shelter, supervisors generally approved consideration of a number of proposed recommendations from the Health Services Department, which oversees Animal Services.

The department asked the board to consider exempting the annual fees for working animals actively engaged in agricultural-related activities. Mostly dogs herding livestock, the exemption would not waive the requirement that the animals be licensed, according to County Counsel Lou Green. The same exemption was requested for working guide and service dogs, collectively known as “assistance dogs.”

In addition to those specific exemptions, the department asked supervisors to seriously consider allowing Animal Services to embed microchips in animals that have been impounded, particularly dogs and cats. Microchips are considered to be the cutting edge of monitoring and regulating animals that run afoul of Animal Services. Pet owners’ identity can be immediately determined when the animal has been fitted with a microchip. Reuniting pets with their owners would be made much easier, and enforcement of ordinances and collections of fines and fees for violations would be easier to accomplish, Chief Administrative Office Analyst Teri Knowlton told the board.

The foregoing issues, however, were but “spoon victuals” for the main course — that is, how, when and whether to follow through on construction of the animal shelter. Over the past two years, since the county plunged deeper into poor financial straits, the $6.2 million set aside to fund the shelter has been seen by many as a source of great potential relief for the General Fund.

Taxpayer groups, deputy sheriffs and others have tried to sway the board to postpone the animal shelter and use the money to help balance the county budget, thereby avoiding some layoffs or shutdowns of some programs. However, others suggest that the fund was established based on a plan to develop a new shelter, and it would be improper and inappropriate to use it for other purposes.

Currently the county operates a “temporary” small animal facility on Placerville Drive in Placerville, administrative offices down the street and a large animal compound in El Dorado Hills. Under the new-shelter proposal, those services and functions would move under one roof or within one fence on 10 acres between Diamond Springs and El Dorado. The county purchased the property several years ago for the proposed animal shelter.

A driving force behind the proposed move is that the lease with the Placerville Drive property owner expires as of Dec. 31, 2013, and is considered unlikely to be renewed.

Over the past two years, progress on the proposal has been much more technical and legalistic than supervisors would have hoped for, and some expressed grave concern that “nothing’s been done,” and “we’re back where we were in 2004.”

Payne, in his first address to the board as the new project manager, tried to answer the question of why progress has taken so long. Acknowledging that he has only become familiar with the project in the past two weeks, he explained, “Land development is a lot more complex than just building a house.”

Payne went on to note that environmental issues, especially grading and the accompanying sediment buildup, affects creeks and wetlands, and “we can’t risk state penalties for getting it wrong.”

Other issues include the need for agreements with the adjacent property owner who sold the parcel to the county. Under the terms of the sale, the county is responsible for building an access road over the existing property in order to get to the proposed shelter site.

Commonly known as Phase I of the project, that and related engineering and architectural work were initially authorized by the board in March of 2009 at a proposed cost of about $1.5 million. That authorization specifically did not authorize nor require future build-out of the shelter itself.

Meanwhile, as the county’s revenue has plummeted to historic lows, the departments responsible for overseeing development and facilities construction have withered. Development Services and the Department of Transportation have suffered unprecedented cuts, layoffs and reorganization beginning in 2008. Two weeks ago, in fact, Kris Payne spoke to the board in his role as president of the County Managers Association and asked supervisors not to lay off up to 20 engineers and other staff from DOT, including himself.

Payne talked to the Mountain Democrat by phone after Monday’s meeting.

“I was very sincere regarding the complexity of this,” Payne explained. “And I have wanted to be more conservative and careful, because I don’t know everything about the project yet.”

He had advised the board that the actual construction might be better planned for spring 2012 rather than this building season because of concern about getting deep into earth-moving too soon before fall and winter rains.

“I want to be sure we have environmental clearances and permitting in order, especially regarding grading. It seems that expectations weren’t met, and I need to find these things out and do my due diligence. I’ll know more in a couple of weeks. I’m going to try to go faster, and I don’t necessarily want to take the most conservative approach.

“Folks are saying, ‘We want it now,’ and if it’s truly, truly possible, that’s what I want to do. Let’s get this done,” Payne said.

E-mail Chris Daley at [email protected] or call 530-344-5063.

Chris Daley

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