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Voter-approved spay-neuter suite now a break room, storage space

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When it comes to spay-neuter programs at its Eastside Animal Shelter, city documents show that Albuquerque is not living up to its promise – or promises to taxpayers. Instead, it has cannibalized what was supposed to be a second surgical suite and turned it into a million-dollar, taxpayer-funded storage closet and break room.

Back in 2007, Albuquerque voters approved more than $5 million in bond funding to rebuild the Eastside Animal Shelter, including a larger surgical center for spay and neuter operations. The state kicked in another million bucks specifically for spay-neuter. And seven years later, in 2014, Mayor Richard Berry signed a resolution on city goals that included “continue to ramp up the spay-neuter program … which would include opening the second surgical suite of our Eastside Animal Shelter.”

Plans for surgical suites

Yet, in 2016, the two rooms labeled on the city blueprint as a second surgical suite for the East Side shelter are being used as storage closets and a break room. The former head of Animal Welfare says the rooms were not designed with sufficient recovery space to be used for surgeries, the acting director recently told the City Council there was never going to be a second surgical suite, and the five veterinarians on staff performed around 13,000 spay-neuter procedures in fiscal 2016 when an ASPCA letter to the city gives national metrics that the total should be more than double that.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, considering that just last year then-Animal Welfare Director Barbara Bruin went into a city computer system and deleted the entire “spay-neuter” objective approved by the mayor and council, as well as the fact that her agency had not met that goal. She said she didn’t know she was deleting the information and thought she was preparing objectives for the next budget year.

When Bruin left the department earlier this month, she said she would continue pushing for a regional spay-neuter clinic – despite the fact that she had six years to honor the intent of taxpayers and elected officials by making that regional clinic happen in her East Side shelter.

On Friday, Bruin said the problem preceded her tenure as director. She said a regional spay-neuter clinic is “critical,” and “I’m as disappointed as anyone that it wasn’t designed correctly,” but “we managed to ramp up (spay-neuter) anyway.”

A blueprint for the shelter stamped Feb. 28, 2011, shows two two-room surgical suites, one clearly labeled “regional.”

City animal program analyst Jim Ludwick said the city was able to supplement the millions in city bond funding back in 2007 with around $1 million in state funding specifically for that regional spay-neuter surgical suite.

On April 11, he sent a five-page memo to acting Director Paul Caster with suggestions for finally ramping up spay-neuter programs as directed by the City Council. The memo said, “We should be achieving well over 20,000 surgeries annually at our in-house clinics … with roughly the same personnel cost and number of surgery shifts.” It highlighted that the city program needs to live up to its self-proclaimed “high-volume” label because several nonprofits are scaling back spay-neuter efforts. It suggested dedicating veterinary staff to either shelter medicine or surgeries to better target productivity. And it recommended developing community partnerships to bring in “the proper mix of dogs versus cats, male versus female, to provide the animals we would need for handling 35 surgeries per day for each surgeon who is working a surgery shift.”

Under that model, smaller communities that don’t have the staff or facilities to dedicate to spay-neuter could partner with Albuquerque and routinely send their animals for procedures here. And more than just low-income residents could get their pets’ care there, increasing procedures and revenue.

Using that second surgical suite is also in line with the ASPCA letter, dated Jan. 14, 2013. It says that, when serving both shelter animals and those from the community, “it is important to … keep the animals separated as much as possible” because “animals housed in shelters are at-risk for the development of infectious disease.”

Yet, Caster told the City Council on April 27 that “the East Side clinic was not designed, built or equipped with two surgical facilities. … The second room was apparently designed as a dog bathing facility, and not having an overwhelming need for that, the veterinarian staff has taken the initiative to use that room for supply storage.” He goes on to say that turning it into a surgical suite would take $2 million in construction, $264,600 in annual supplies and $218,000 in annual staffing.

He did not explain why it would cost $2 million when it was originally built as a surgical suite.

Ludwick said that officials “can’t see past the cages in the shelter to look at the bigger responsibility to the community. They are under-utilizing and lying about it.”

“We did not spend a million dollars to build a bathhouse for dogs. It was an additional surgical suite, and it has not been utilized.”

In fact, it has been cannibalized. Surgical lights were in that break room; according to a city veterinary clinic manager’s memo, they were removed and reinstalled in the West Side shelter’s surgical suite in 2015, because “the ones that are there are not cutting it and most docs don’t even use them because they cast more shadows then (sic) they do light (not to mention, they are being held into position with leashes). Because the lights don’t work well, techs frequently have to hold a flashlight for docs during surgery for light.”

Does this sound at all like an operation that honors $7 million of your tax money, much less one that takes spay-neuter seriously?

City Chief Operations Officer Michael Riordan said Thursday that the city absolutely does. Although he agreed that the city “is not fully utilizing the capital investments,” he said that the administration is proud it has increased its spay-neuter numbers from around 4,000 a year in 2009 to close to 14,000 a year today. He said, “Our capital priority has been Kennel D,” the open viewing kennel, which did not comply with the city animal ordinance on several fronts. And he added that the East Side shelter does not have sufficient storage or a break room, so staff made use of the unused surgical suite, and “our next capital priority is a second surgical suite,” which could be at the East Side shelter or somewhere else.

Except taxpayers have already funded that second surgical suite and got a storage closet and a break room instead.


UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to assistant editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or road@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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