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City Freezes $1.3M In Animal Funding

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
    Albuquerque city councilors narrowly backed a plan to freeze $1.3 million in funding for animal care until the mayor justifies his decision to create a new Animal Welfare Department.
    The council voted 4-3 to hold the money in reserve, setting up a possible showdown with Mayor Martin Chávez. It takes six of nine council votes to override a veto.
    Councilor Sally Mayer, who sponsored the measure, said she wants to ensure that the money is actually spent on animal services, rather than "newly created positions for people's friends." The mayor's reorganization included hiring a new leadership team to oversee the department.
    "Funds have been used to create a top-heavy department," Mayer said.
    Mayoral executives strongly objected to the bill. They said it would make it difficult for the animal program to function on a daily basis.
    Council approval, for example, would be needed for routine purchases, such as surgical tables, they said.
    Bruce Perlman, the top executive under Chávez, said the bill was an unprecedented intrusion into administrative functions, such as personnel matters.
    "The legacy of Sally Mayer's public life will now be that she has turned her back on the suffering of homeless dogs and cats," the mayoral administration said in a statement released late Monday by spokeswoman Deborah James. "She has done this only for her own personal agenda."
    Mayer said the bill won't harm daily operations of shelters. The $1.3 million wouldn't be needed until the end of the budget year next summer, she said, and dramatic proposals are the only way to get the mayor to cooperate.
    "You can still use the money if you go through the council," she said.
    Seven animal activists, including representatives of Watermelon Mountain Ranch and Animal Protection Voters, spoke against the bill during public comment. They said it was unfair for animals to be caught in a political spat between Mayer and the mayoral administration.
    Voting in favor of the bill were Mayer, Don Harris, Debbie O'Malley and Brad Winter. Against it were Martin Heinrich, Isaac Benton and Ken Sanchez.
    Michael Cadigan and Craig Loy were absent.
    Supporters of the bill said they feared that the mayor was spending animal money on things not approved in the annual city budget. They also criticized him for creating a new department without their input.
    Harris said the mayor had "crossed the foul line" by doing too much unilaterally.
    "It's not the first time he has done this," Harris said.
    The fight over animal services came after Chávez shook up the program last month and transferred out the associate director in charge of it. Chávez said that the program hadn't made enough progress toward its goals and that more than 1,400 dogs had to be put down this year after they became sick in the shelters.
    He made the program a stand-alone department and put Jeanine Patterson, a registered nurse, in charge as director. John Romero, a longtime veterinarian, is the new associate director.
    Several councilors were also irritated that— before the department was created— former Journal reporter Jim Ludwick was hired as an animal program analyst.
    Mayer's bill freezes funding for the analyst position and 10 others. Also frozen is funding for an adoption center at Cottonwood Mall and veterinary equipment.
    The council will release money for those items if the mayor submits proposals for them individually, councilors said.
    "I don't think any of this is unreasonable," Mayer said.
    Lee Diclemente of Watermelon Mountain Ranch, an animal rescue group, said the city's new animal welfare team is much better than the old group.
    "They are true professionals— the new people," Diclemente said. "I'm impressed."
    He said the professionals in place should run the department, not the council.
    Ed Adams, the city's chief operating officer, said getting council approval for equipment purchases and other budget items is an inefficient way to do business.
    The money, once cut from the budget, is "going into the general fund and could be reappropriated for any purpose," he said.
    Mayer has been the council's most active member on animal issues and fought for funding increases for the program in the past.
    "No one in this city has worked harder than I have for animals," she said.