By MATTHEW WATKINS
Brazos Animal Shelter leaders and Bryan city officials are discussing a compromise that both sides say would allow them to continue to work together and end months of haggling over fees.
The plan, which Mayor Jason Bienski proposed at a two-hour meeting on Friday, would be to house animals picked up by Bryan's animal control in a city-owned facility on Finfeather Road. Brazos Animal Shelter employees would run that facility and, if there is space, take the animals to the shelter's new Leonard Road location when they are ready to be adopted.
The Finfeather Road facility currently serves as the Brazos Animal Shelter headquarters, where it provides services for Bryan, College Station and Brazos County. But Bryan notified the nonprofit group in November that it planned to cease its relationship and evict it from its property.
That sent the shelter scrambling to build a temporary facility on Leonard Road so it could continue to care for College Station and the county's animals when it vacates the Finfeather site on June 30.
Bienski's proposal aims to continue the city's relationship with the shelter while it builds a permanent building on Leonard Road. The hope, he said, is to give the shelter more space, which would allow it to keep more animals and lower its euthanasia rate, and eventually have the nonprofit group handle College Station, Bryan and Brazos County's sheltering needs at that permanent site.
"I think that it is important and the most cost effective if all three governments work together, which makes sense, and we need to find ways to do that," Bienski said.
The plan is by no means a done deal. Bienski will have to sell the idea to the rest of the Bryan City Council. At least one member, Councilman Mike Southerland, has been resistant to continuing to work with the shelter, saying that their quibbles have become too tense and, at times, personal. And the full Brazos Animal Shelter board will also have to sign off. But both sides said they are optimistic.
"We are just thrilled that [the city] recognizes that the Brazos Animal Shelter is the best for the animals and [on Friday] there was a lot more talk with the officials in Bryan about what is right for the animals and not what is right for people and egos," said Judy LeUnes, president of the Shelter Board.
Shelter officials have frequently complained that their current Finfeather Road site was inadequate and undersized. But under their previous funding agreements, they were having trouble getting started with a move to Leonard Road, where they hope to build a $5 million facility.
They reviewed their books and determined that they had been grossly undercharging their government partners and having to rely on donations to make up the difference.
So they notified the two cities and the county that they were going to begin charging for the full cost of caring for their animals, about $95 for each pet. With those costs, the shelter could then use donations to fund new construction. The increase raised Bryan's bill by 105 percent, to almost $300,000. College Station's costs rose 138 percent to $169,000 and Brazos County's bill jumped 50 percent to $60,000.
All three governments agreed to the increase, but Bryan began searching for less expensive options. The city investigated operating a shelter on its own and sent out a request for proposals for outside agencies to do the work.
The only proposal the city received was from the for-profit group Care Corp. It offered to run the shelter for $285,000 a year with a one-time startup cost of $200,000. But Care Corp. said it wouldn't pay for the shelter's utilities and maintenance, meaning the city would have to pay an additional $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
A citizen advisory group advised the council to reject Care Corp.'s proposal and operate a shelter on its own.
On Tuesday, Deputy City Manager Hugh Walker told the council that a city-run shelter would cost about $293,000 each year, with a $200,000 start-up expense. But Walker acknowledged that that was an estimate and the city, which has little experience running a shelter, couldn't know for sure. Walker told the citizen advisory committee last month that the "worst case" scenario would be much higher, $535,000 a year.
After seeing those numbers, some council members said they'd be open to sticking with the Brazos Animal Shelter, which the College Station City Council also decided to do by signing a 10-year contract on Thursday.
So Bienski, Interim City Manager Kean Register and Ben Hardeman, Bryan's representative on the Brazos Animal Shelter board, met with LeUnes and another shelter board member Friday.
They toured the new Leonard Road property and discussed the shelter's space issues. They also talked about opening a low-cost spay and neuter clinic for people who can't afford veterinarians and using city resources to improve pet owner education and promote animal shelter events.
"It was just a great meeting and what we should have been talking about for the last two years," LeUnes said.
Details would still need to be worked out. Bienski said he'd like for animal control from College Station and Brazos County to also bring animals to the Finfeather Road site. LeUnes said the shelter's current contract with those two governments have the animals going to the Leonard Road site. But if the governments wanted to change, she'd be open to it, she said.
They will also need to figure out funding. LeUnes said the salaries of the shelter employees at Finfeather Road would need to be paid by Bryan.
She said she will present the plan to the shelter board on March 21. The Bryan City Council is scheduled to make a decision on March 22. And Bienski and Register have been invited to speak to the full shelter board on March 28.
"I think we can find a way for all of us to stay at the table and look to the future, not just six months down the road," Bienski said.