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Letters to the EditorMelissa Rusk addresses municipal animal pound issue

Melissa Rusk addresses municipal animal pound issue

Following is a presentation to Carleton Place council by area resident Melissa Rusk. Ms Rusk tells the Millstone that she asked Mississippi Mills Council for permission to present these comments to them before their vote on the issue this week, but was refused.

by Melissa Rusk

I’d like to start off by thanking the Committee for allowing the Community to voice their concerns relative to the Municipal pound proposal. While, as I recently learned, I am not a resident of Carleton Place, residents of Carleton Place have approached me and requested that I speak on their behalf in relation to the issue at hand. Despite the fact that animal welfare remains one of the top three philanthropic causes that people are passionate about and support financially, as one individual pointed out, not everyone is an animal lover. One thing that everyone does have in common, as taxpayers and residents of this progressive community, is the desire to ensure that, in these economic times, financial, human and capital resources are optimized and managed efficiently. So, for the purpose of this presentation, I would like to focus on the community’s desire to achieve the goal of resource optimization and sound financial management in relation to the proposed Municipal pound. Regardless of the philosophy an animal shelter embraces, there are significant tangible and intangible operating costs associated with this business line. Looking at the Municipal pound MOU, it is astonishing to see the inaccuracies associated with the grossly unrealistic one time capital investment and ongoing operational expenses.

Before diving into a discussion surrounding some of the projections associated with specific line items, I’d like to start off with the following logic. It is safe to assume that the total population of Lanark county is approximately 1/5th of the total population of Ottawa. In the City of Ottawa, the Ottawa Humane Society is contracted out to provide Municipal pound services, similar to what we are here discussing this evening. It wouldn’t be erroneous to suggest then, that, the proposed budget for a Lanark county pound be approximately 1/5th of the annual operating budget for the Ottawa Humane Society-. In 2010, the audited financial statements for the Ottawa Humane Society indicated that their annual operating expenses were $4.2 million, so, following the aforementioned reasoning, the annual operating expenses for a pound serving 1/5th of the population the OHS serves would be approximately $840,000-recognizing that the Lanark pound would likely not be able to achieve the similar discounts achieved by OHS’ economies of scale and proximity to suppliers. I can’t help but question the soundness of a budget that indicates that the maximum annual operating expenses would be $45,000, a figure which is approximately 19 times less than a figure derived based on logic.

Not only are the proposed maximum annual operating estimates grossly misrepresented, the one time capital investment of $100,000 is equally astonishing- raising questions surrounding the size of the facility and the quality of the infrastructure. In 2014, $100,000 certainly does not reflect the actual costs associated with capital infrastructure, with the exception of something along the lines of a trailer. While the proposal does not indicate the square footage of this facility, let’s assume that it is similar in size to the Lanark Animal Welfare Society, at approximately 4,000sq ft. Based on current market prices, new build rates range from $180/sq ft to $295/sq ft. Given that the MOU indicates that the pound facility would be ‘basic’, let’s use the lower figure of $180/sq.ft, for a 4,000sq ft. facility, the initial capital investment would $720,000. It would appear as though, the capital infrastructure for the proposed municipal pound is either, again, erroneous, or based on the construction of a 556 sq.ft facility. It should also be noted, that a pound facility is by no means a basic build- while the exterior may be standard, the expenses associated with ensuring that the interior is sterile and retrofitted to comply with Animal Research Act regulations will inevitably exceed budgeted projections.

As we take a look at the projections associated with some of the budgeted line items, it is relatively easy to see where some of these financial inaccuracies associated with annual operating expenses, stem from.

Take vet expenses for example, the current budget estimates that the maximum ANNUAL vet expenses will be $1700. In today’s environment, any pet owner can attest to the increasing fees associated with veterinary care. Two emergency vet appointments could readily exceed the $1700 annual expense. The majority of vet expenses accumulated by a municipal pound would stem from emergency vet care, which veterinary providers charge a prime for, regardless of pre negotiated arrangements, these unforeseen and unpredictable events carry heightened expenses that are a cost of doing business for a municipal pound.

Based on the earlier discussion surrounding the sq.ft of the facility, annual utility expenses of $1000 represent a $0.40/sq ft fee (based on 4,000sq.ft) or $1.80/sq.ft fee (based on a 556 sq.ft facility)- I can only speak for myself, where my monthly utilities certainly exceed these projections. How was this projection calculated? Or should we assume that this facility will operate with nominal heat, hydro and electricity?

Moving on to the human resource projections, specifically the annual wage expense ranging from $15,000 to $25,000. Does this line item factor in additional contributions (WSIB)? How many FTE/PTE resources will be employed? The $25,000 expense can be equated to 4 working hours a day, 7 days a week, 28 hours per week at minimum wage ($10.17/hr). Is it safe to assume the pound will only be open 4 hours a day? Anything less than 4 working hours a day would certainly compromise the welfare of the pound animals in terms of basic care. What will happen if Ontario increases the minimum wage to $14/hr in 2016? Given the fact that this budget does not account for annual inflationary increases or the potential for surprises, is it safe to assume that an increase in minimum wage would result in a decrease in operating hours?

More importantly, from a human resource perspective, is that roles and responsibilities associated with the position and the specialized skill set required to fulfill these responsibilities while minimizing liabilities associated with pound operations. The MOU indicates that efforts will be made to adopt out all ‘adoptable animals’, the public wants to know how ‘adoptability’ is defined. What assessment tool will be utilized to determine whether or not an animal is adoptable and when will this assessment tool be employed? At intake, when the animal is scared and in an unfamiliar environment? Or after the impounding period is over? Who will be conducting these assessments? Recognizing that behavioral assessments require a skilled resource, is it realistic to assume that the minimum wage afforded to human resources, under the current budget structure, will attract and retain this skill set? Understanding the liabilities associated with adopting out an animal who is not adoptable, it would appear as though the current wage structure does not support the specialized skill set required to conduct appropriate assessments, and if the plan is to truly adopt out all adoptable animals, anyone entering into this agreement should be aware of the potential risks stemming from this, primarily from a litigation perspective.

The notion of liability is further reinforced relative to the insurance line item, at $1000 a year, this figure, again is an underestimate of the actual costs associated with the appropriate level of coverage for a business that carries significant risk to, both the public and its employees. If this proposal proceeds, the community strongly encourages the various partners to this agreement to seek out an appropriate level of coverage.

Like the line items discusses thus far, additional research must be done in order to modify additional line items, including basic care expenses, disease control, mileage, program support, training and maintenance, to accurately reflect the costs associated with operating a municipal pound. The budget also indicates a $100 expense associated with pound membership, if this reflects the desire to partner with the OSPCA, research into the additional responsibilities that go along with association (ie. cruelty officers) and respective liabilities, is strongly encouraged.

While the community has heard that the Municipal pound intends on working with local rescues to leverage their established networks, the reality is that this relationship would require financial compensation. What financial compensation will be provided to these local rescues and shelters in order for them to sustain operational expenses associated with a new responsibility? If there is no plan to provide financial compensation to these local organizations, most of which are registered charities and not for profits who struggle to sustain themselves financially given the current economy, than it is an unrealistic expectation for them to assume this function. Instead, it can be perceived as an attempt for those in support of a municipal pound to shift the blame surrounding decisions to euthanize over to these shelters and rescues, who can’t fulfill this unrealistic expectation without appropriate financial compensation.

I’d like to touch on the issue of supply and demand. It is not secret that capacity to meet the overwhelming needs associated with animal welfare in Lanark county has been a challenge. The demand exceeds the available supply, local shelters and rescues are limited in their capacity. Like any business, capacity is a notion that must be respected and can only be increased through expansion or the strategic reallocation of available resources. Does the proposed municipal pound have a strategy in place to respond to seasonal increases in demand? Further complicating this notion of supply and demand is the issue of outbreaks.  Outbreaks are a reality within the pound and shelter environments, and mass euthanization is not an appropriate response. Does the proposed municipal pound have business contingency and business continuity plans in place to respond to the unknown? In addition, the proposed budget does not include a line item to respond to these unknowns. Outbreaks are an unavoidable cost of doing business.

Responding to outbreaks is one of the many process issues that should be addressed. The community has raised two other critical process issues:  the first with respect to communication and awareness, and the second deals with the adopting out of animals.

What communication avenues will be municipal pound be leveraging to ensure that the public aware of animals currently in the facility? Will the onus be placed on the owner to seek out information from the pound relative to their lost animal? Or will this information be made available, in a timely manner, to the public? It is not surprising that the issue of communication has been raised, as up until the past few weeks, this notion of a municipal pound was not discussed openly in a public forum. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, even local shelters and rescues, the organizations that the MOU identifies as potential partners, weren’t even aware of these discussions. Moving forward, it is essential that discussions and decisions are transparent and timely, I think tonight is an excellent example of the importance of community engagement.

The second issue revolves around the process of adoption, while we touched on this topic earlier relative to defining ‘adoptable’ and conducting behavioral assessments, the community is shifting their focus to ensuring that ‘adoptable animals’ are adopted out in a manner that promotes animal welfare. Will animals adopted out on behalf of the pound be microchipped? Vaccinated? Spayed/Neutered? If so, where is this expense addressed in the proposed budget? Or was it assumed that ‘partnering shelters and rescues’ would absorb that expense? If so, these partners would require financial compensation for these increased expenses, or again it becomes an unrealistic expectation.

In order to accurately respond to the supply and demand issue relative to animal welfare in Lanark county, a reactive approach could be employed- where one builds a new facility or employs new procedures to ‘react’ to the increase in demand, or a proactive approach could be employed, which strives to address the underlying issues associated with increases in demand. These proactive initiatives strive to promote and encourage responsible pet ownership through educational initiatives, micro chipping clinics, spay/neuter clinics and mandatory vaccinations. As it stands, the proposed Municipal pound is simply advocating an approach to reacts to the supply issue, if we continue reacting, we will find ourselves revisiting this issue time over time. An approach that balances both the reactive and proactive will eventually result in cost savings, all while ensuring that animal welfare is protected within our communities.

The current MOU doesn’t afford any municipality the opportunity to revisit their engagement. The termination clauses are robust and invoke significant financial penalties, should a municipality/town opt to explore other avenues. In all my years, I have never seen a contract that expects 100% reimbursement of their share of operating expenses if termination occurs within four years, and reimbursement of 50% of their share of operating expenses if termination occurs from year 4.1 through to 10. From a financial perspective, anyone attempting to opt out of this agreement, for more sustainable options, face significant financial consequences. This clause alone should be forcing potential pound partners to rethink their involvement, as it is a long term commitment.

So, what is the solution? If the municipal pound proceeds costing needs to be realistic and processes must be clearly defined. The issue of supply and demand must be addressed, reacting to increases does nothing to stem the underlying issues. In order to strategically respond to these issues, proactive approaches must be embraced and resourced appropriately. There is no single service provider that can meet all of these requirements, however, there are several existing resources within the community that could be leveraged. Explore partnership opportunities with local rescues and shelters and consider funding satellite facilities that are operated by existing resources, transferring operational expertise and risks to those who are trained to respond to them. The solution does not lie in reacting to the situation but rather it lies in engaging what already exists, optimizing resources and empowering the community, as a whole, to strategically address the issue of animal welfare in Lanark county.




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