Robinson, Moe: City should take over review of partnership options with Maclean

Commissioners Owen Robinson and Mary Moe have been meeting with members of the Maclean Cameron Animal Adoption Center for the last few months to discuss a potential partnership that, in their view could be a cost savings for the city.

During the July 2 work session, they presented their discussions so far to their fellow City Commissioners, city staff and the public.

In February, Robinson announced during a commission meeting that he wanted to explore the possibility of some form of partnership and said that Moe had agreed to join those discussions with him and Maclean foundation board members.

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Moe said they’ve met seven or eight times since with the intent of putting aside the past and look at the possibilities with fresh eyes.

Early on, they developed an initial working model for partnership as a starting point, which was exchanged in emails among the group and acquired through records requests.

Moe said they determined that model wouldn’t save the city money so they dropped it and moved to the next concept of looking at whether contracting services to Maclean would save the city money.

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To do that, they need to know what services the city is obligated to provide, she said.

The city is required by state law to provide animal control.

Robinson and Moe created a document for the work session listing city animal shelter finances dating back to 2001.

The city contracted with the Humane Society of Cascade County from 1992-2008 for animal services, including animal control.

From fiscal year 2001 to 2007, the annual contract went from $90,000 to $115,000.

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The city assumed operation of the animal shelter in 2008 and operational costs were $432,293 with $156,637 in revenue. In 2012, animal control was moved from the animal shelter to the Great Falls Police Department.

In fiscal year 2019, which ended June 30, the operating expenses were $697,127 and the revenue was $145,607.

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The group visited Heart of the Valley shelter in the Bozeman area in April and they said there were parts of that model that could work for Great Falls

Moe said they didn’t have all the data about Heart of the Valley’s operations, “there are a lot of unknowns,” but they think it’s a model worth exploring.

Robinson said that at this point in their discussions, they don’t have a proposal.

He said the options are essentially to privatize or do nothing.

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“We think a lot of money could be saved,” Robinson said, but, he and Moe doesn’t have to expertise to take it to the next level.

“It’s not appropriate for city commissioners to run around and come up with proposals,” he said.

Robinson said they think the city should take over the study of options to partner with Maclean.

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Robinson said their group suggests that whoever takes over the study asks city shelter staff about their take on the Heart of the Valley model; visit the Heart of the Valley shelter; quantify potential gains and losses for contracting out services; identify services duplicated; and consider care quality and capacity.

He said the Heart of the Valley model wouldn’t fit here perfectly, but parts of it could be applicable to Great Falls.

“We’ve gone as far as we think we can go without being inappropriate,” Robinson said.

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Commissioner Tracy Houck asked Robinson and Moe who they thought should do the study and if they had any idea as to the cost.

Robinson said that was a good question, but didn’t know what the cost might be.

Moe said Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson could assume oversight of the study.

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Commissioner Bill Bronson said it was great to look for cost savings, but again cautioned the effort.

He said when he hears the word privatization, “I cringe.”

It’s often sold to a city as a way of saving money, but that’s usually by providing a lesser quality service, he said.

Yes, the cost was lower when the city contracted with the Humane Society of Cascade County, but the service turned out to be “woefully inadequate,” Bronson said.

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From 2010 to 2011, the city again tried to contract out animal services, but was unsuccessful.

“That process was a disaster,” Bronson said. There were issues with the contractor’s unwillingness to provide financial information and it “became a huge stumbling block,” he said.

Going forward, there has to be an understanding, Bronson said, for any entity looking to contract with the city, that there’s a higher level of transparency required for government agencies.

Houck asked if they looked at ways to increase revenue for the shelter during their discussions.

Robinson said that was past what they should be doing as commissioners.

Moe said if they’re looking at saving money for the city, contracting would be the way to do it.

Mayor Bob Kelly said this discussion stalled in 2016 when Maclean wasn’t willing to discuss financials.

He said the situation had since changed at Maclean with new leadership, the building was completed and the foundation owns the building.

“That debt was something we never wanted to go near,” Kelly said.

The foundation paid off its $1.7 million debt on the building in February 2018.

In a response to The Electric earlier this year from the foundation board, the foundation had $157,797.41 of remaining debt on the land.

“The owners gave us a tremendous deal on the land and the payment schedule to acquire the land. In addition, we have a donor who has committed to match half of the annual payment through 2022. We have 7 more payments to acquire the land,” the board said in a response to The Electric earlier this year.

Kelly said this was a good stopping point for Robinson and Moe to let staff take over reviewing the options.

It may not be possible, he said, but worth exploring.

City Manager Greg Doyon said he would need more clarification and a consensus from the commission on whether they wanted to move forward in exploring a partnership for the fourth time.

He said he understands the intent and told commissioners he’d review the options if that’s what they ask of him, “with the scrutiny that’s required to be accountable to the commission and the taxpayer.”

He said he understood Robinson and Moe’s effort to leave the past behind, but said it’s long been an emotional issue in Great Falls.

“I’m not excited about opening this up again and creating the drama that happened the last three times,” he said.

“This really needs to be a two-way street with information,” Doyon said

If the city asks for information and doesn’t get it, he said he’d come back to a commission meeting, say that and suggest discussions not move forward.

He said it might be more effective to ask Maclean to provide a proposal of duplicated services and their cost to provide them to the city

“What is it they believe they could take over and what would be the cost of those services,” Doyon said.

Moe said they’d talk to Maclean to get more information. Commissioners will revisit the discussion at a later meeting.