Commission approves cattery contract; Maclean partnership discussions ongoing
After a month-long delay, the City Commission voted 4-0 on Tuesday to award a $462,000 contract to Detailed Construction for the cattery addition at the Great Falls Animal Shelter.
The contract was initially on the April 2 agenda, but the commission voted 3-2 to postpone the decision to September, effectively killing the bid that had a 60-day clock.
Community members expressed frustration with that decision and commissioners held a special meeting on April 30 to rescind their April 2 vote and put the contract back on the agenda for the May 7 meeting.
Commissioner Owen Robinson made the motion on April 2 to postpone so he and Commissioner Mary Moe could have more time to meet with the Maclean Animal Adoption Center’s board to explore options for collaboration or combination in some fashion.
Robinson had asked the city in 2016 to take over operations of the Maclean facility but those discussions fizzled out.
In February, Robinson announced that he wanted the city to consider some sort of partnership. He and Moe have been meeting with members of the foundation.
He said in February that since it would just be two commissioners, the meetings would not be subject to public notice, open meetings or public participation laws. They’d dubbed their committee Animals First.
City shelter staff has not yet been involved in those discussions.
On May 7, a number of residents spoke in support of awarding the cattery contract and questions the discussions with Maclean.
Fred Burow, former city commissioner, said “I caution you a little bit to walk softly.”
“I know you have a warm spot on your heart for them,” Burow told Robinson. “I don’t think the city really needs to take over that building or consider that.”
Suzie Stephenson asked commissioners to explore whether a working relationship with the foundation would result in a fiscal benefit to the city and if so, how much.
During the public comment period for items not on the agenda, Pam Hendrickson asked whether the Animals First meetings were public meetings.
Mayor Bob Kelly said the work Robinson and Moe are doing is exploratory at best. He said that at this point, they weren’t an official city function, but were something they’d undertaken as commissioners.
“I have no idea if they’re open,” he said.
Hendrickson asked whether they were functioning as public officials in the discussions.
Kelly said the meeting wasn’t the place to discuss it and “I’m not really aware of the nuance of it.”
Hendrickson asked if it was the Animals First meetings that resulted in the decision to postpone.
Kelly said “no.”
Later in the meeting, during the public comment on the cattery contract vote, again asked why the cattery decision was postponed during the April 2 meeting.
She said that Kelly had said earlier in the meeting that it wasn’t because of the Animals First discussions, but the minutes indicated there had been official discussion.
Kelly said he wasn’t clear on what designates an official response and deferred to Assistant City Attorney Joe Cik.
Cik said that while their wasn’t a vote in February, it was pretty clear that there was a consensus that discussions with Maclean should begin and the April 2 decision was based on those discussions. It was advised by the city’s legal department, Cik said, that the commission not postpone the contract award past the 60-day limit.
As far as the legal department is concerned, Cik said, the commission acted appropriately in calling a special meeting and putting the cattery contract back on the agenda while continuing discussions with Maclean.
He said the commission is free to investigate the issue and report back to the commission.
Hendrickson again asked whether they were functioning on official city business in discussions with Maclean since earlier Kelly had said they weren’t.
Kelly said that he misspoke. He said they go to lots of meetings to gather information and that they’ve been clear that they’re investigating the options.
Whether Robinson and Moe were representing an official function, Kelly said he wasn’t comfortable with making that determination.
Kelly said the Animals First meetings were examples of the kinds of meetings they do every day and are never questioned to this extent.
Hendrickson asked Kelly when the public was allowed to ask question since he’d said earlier that the public comment period wasn’t designed for questions.
Kelly said the public can always ask questions, but Hendrickson asked again if the public could ask questions during public comment.
Kelly said, traditionally no, it’s up to the commission whether to respond to questions.
Ryan Smith of Nelson Architects designed the cattery addition and other phases on improvements included in the shelter’s master plan.
During the May 7 meeting he said that he’d also been the project architect for Maclean when he was working for a different company. He said the Maclean facility was designed to be able to handle the city shelter and animal control, but at this time, the cattery addition at the city’s existing facility was appropriate.
Burow spoke again during the cattery contract discussion and said that years ago, the city didn’t have the money to make improvements, but the commission had told staff that if they raised the money, they could build the cattery addition and other improvements.
“That’s what they have done,” he said.
That speaks volumes of staff, Burow said, and “to start backpedaling now sends a very bad message to any things staff would do.”
Commissioner Bill Bronson said that he came onto the commission in the midst of the community debate on animals in 2007.
The people involved are sincere in their efforts to help animals, he said, but in many instances the groups haven’t been able to work together.
Bronson said that given the numbers of cats at both facilities and in the community, if there was just the city shelter or just the Maclean, “we could not deal with the problems that we have with cats in the community. That’s just a fact.”
He said the current city shelter is likely to be required for some time to come and to deal with the cat issue, the cattery is needed.
Bronson said it was heartening that the city could go to the community and over time, raise the funds to improve the shelter.
He said that his vote in favor of the cattery was not a statement to his fellow commissioners that the city shouldn’t consider discussions with Maclean to see if a partnership would work.
Commissioner Mary Moe said the larger issue to her is that in a community as tax sensitive as Great Falls, services are being duplicated between the city shelter and Maclean.
She said “the potential for cost savings is extraordinary,” in working with Maclean.
As an example, she pointed to the Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter in Bozeman that she and Robinson recently visited.
She said that shelter contract with localities in Bozeman, Belgrade and Gallatin and Madison counties and saved $500,000.
That shelter’s expenses were $1.5 million, according to their 2017 tax forms posted on their website. They spent $686,000 on personnel and their director was paid $100,000.
The Great Falls shelter’s adopted budget for the current fiscal year is $687,316, according to city documents, with 10.28 full time employees. In this year’s budget, the shelter is projected to generate about $113,000 in revenues from fees for adoptions, cremations, micro-chipping, pet redemption, etc.
According to the Maclean’s 2017 tax forms, the animal adoption program cost $513,547 and generated $76,011 in revenue. The education program cost $22,433 and generated $15,022 in revenue. That year, the foundation’s total functional expenses were $785,813.
To make a partnership work, Moe said everyone would have to let go of past grievances.
“I think it takes us one more step in the wrong direction,” she said of approving the cattery.
She said that the city rejected bids last year for the cattery since they were too high and the bids this year had come down so delaying the cattery might not increase the cost.
Moe said that she’d been assured the cattery wouldn’t require additional staff, but she believes that it will and that the expanded facility would increase operating costs.
Staff has said they don’t anticipate a significant increase in operating costs with the cattery and the new incinerator that would be installed as part of the project would lower their costs.
Moe said her vote in favor of the cattery does not indicate any kind of commitment to anything in the future with regard to the master plan.
On discussions with partnering with Maclean, she said, “if we can’t, we can’t, I just have to try.”
Robinson said that the city does need catteries.
“I’m kind of sorry in a way that I made the motion in the first place to postpone,” he said, because it really, in retrospect, doesn’t make much sense to postpone.
But, he said going forward, the city needs to look at ways, not only with animals, to be more efficient to save money and spend in areas they’re lacking, such as public safety.