CHEYENNE — Residents packed into the Cheyenne City Council chambers on Monday night to advocate for contract renegotiations with the local animal shelter.
City and Laramie County officials announced last week their plan to cancel their $800,000 contract with the Cheyenne Animal Shelter for intake services and to start a new facility on South Greeley Highway. Increasing budget requests to $1.25 million, lack of financial transparency and failure to communicate have all been cited as motivation for the cancellation.
Although budget requests and negotiations are often finalized in May for the animal shelter, the city has moved forward with a lease agreement with Meals on Wheels for property to house the new facility. That lease was referred to the Finance Committee, which will consider it next week. The City Council would take a final vote on the lease on March 27, which put pressure on the animal shelter.
Cheyenne Animal Shelter CEO Britney Tennant and Board President Richard Mincer met Friday with Mayor Patrick Collins to discuss a compromise, but no official renegotiations have begun.
Community members have urged them on social media in the past few days to go back to the drawing board and reconcile, and close to 25 individuals provided testimony at Monday night’s council meeting. They had to wait three hours until the end of the agenda before voicing their desires to see tax dollars go toward animal care services.
“This organization that we have now is such an organization to be proud of in the city of Cheyenne,” said resident Linda Byrd. “The kind of services that they give the city and the animals and the people here is something that we should be telling everyone about. This is a town of animal lovers in Cheyenne.”
Byrd said that as a taxpayer, she wants socially conscious services and not a dog pound — a point made by residents who have lived in Laramie County for decades. They said they observed the multiple shelters run previously by the city and called it “a cheap place to die.”
Arguments were also made in conjunction with the animal shelter that developing a metro animal services facility would not save the city money or have as many successful outcomes when it comes to getting pets to rescue organizations and loving homes.
Animal shelter officials accepted the initial cost calculated by the city of around $600,000, but said a medical director, veterinarian technician, supplies and equipment would add hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tennant and Mincer told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle the calculation was too low, because it didn’t include stray drop-offs or factor in animals staying longer than three to five days.
They also weren’t aware of any community partners who had been spoken to about transferring hundreds of animals at the five-day mark. If the city and county weren’t going to factor in the cost of a longer stay, then there were separate concerns that the euthanasia rate would climb.
“What do I tell the public when they bring us a stray or hesitate to call animal control because they don’t have a relationship with this new facility and are afraid they will be mistreated or immediately euthanized?” asked Black Dog Animal Rescue Executive Director Emilee Intlekofer at the meeting. “I assume a lot of you have pets and don’t want to intentionally see an animal suffer, but as it stands now, the stance you’ve taken is suggesting otherwise.”
More emotional testimony was heard from the public as they shared how important animals were in their lives, the positive impact the shelter had on the community and their demand for a solution that wasn’t duplicating services.
Out of the meeting
While City Council members expressed they were happy to see strong public engagement, some criticized the tone of the dialogue or suggested residents get involved more often.
“I was kind of wondering where everybody was when the state Legislature was cutting all the social programs and the Department of Health or the Department of Family Services,” said City Council member Ken Esquibel. “There was about a 10th of the number of people in that room. That was on Appropriations, when we were going through those budget cuts.
“It seems like we’re more passionate about animals than we are people when it comes to social programs,” he said.
The meeting concluded shortly after Esquibel’s remarks, and animal shelter advocates walked out of the Municipal Building at 10 p.m. There was uncertainty as to what the next step would be, because the city only recommended the lease agreement to the committee, and no other action was taken at the meeting.
City officials can simply not renew the contract come June, but Cheyenne Animal Shelter leaders said they were determined to find a common ground following the meeting. Tennant said they have already made the mayor aware they hope to secure a three- to five-year contract that will remain at $1 million per year.
Taken by surprise
This process has not been what the second-year shelter CEO expected. She said she sent in the request for $1.25 million as a starting place for negotiations at the end of February and thought there would be a meeting scheduled in May to finalize the contract.
Shelter board President Mincer said the city and animal shelter have been incrementally increasing the budget since 2018, after nearly a decade of the cost being half a million dollars. He said the board has seen a large deficit in the amount they receive vs. how much it truly costs to take care of the number of stray animals in the county. They believed there would be a compromise this year, even if it wasn’t the total request for $1.25 million.
But somewhere along the way, there was a breakdown in dialogue. The shelter had no idea the city was planning on dropping the contract, despite having City Council member Richard Johnson serving on the shelter board as a council liaison.
“Compared to past mayors, Mayor Collins has shown a lot more interest in this. He has been trying to learn and understand more of what’s going on,” Mincer said. “It was frustrating that nobody told us they were looking at doing this. We could have had a conversation back in January if they’d said we’re looking at setting up a new shelter.”
Collins said he has been looking at options to create their own program since budget discussions last year. He said it was communicated that shelter officials were getting to an asking price the city couldn’t meet, and then they came back with a significant increase. The mayor received the impression the shelter wouldn’t lower its request, and said he didn’t believe they were listening to the council’s concerns for fiscal year 2023.
In order to support a contract for 2024, Collins reiterated that he wants there to be a complete list of transactions available for the city and an improved line of communication. He said he wants a line-item description of expenses so everyone can understand the breakdown for animal control, owner surrenders, out-of-state transfers and more. He wants to quantify the animals they feel responsible for.
Both the shelter and the mayor confirmed they sent their Internal Revenue Service Form 990 from their audits, but this only shows total revenue and general expenses.
Collins said if there was more communication between Tennant and the city before the request came in, they could have discussed the increase.
“That’s just me, personally. I don’t think there’s any requirement on their part to do that,” he said. “It might have made their job a little bit easier. But I still don’t think it changes the fundamental fact that I don’t know what I’m paying for.”
Tennant said she would have been willing to have more contact with Collins, but she assumed it was the role of the council liaison to be a dialogue generator. She said she is happy to discuss the budget and the operations of the facility in the future as part of an agreement.
There is still work to be done and questions to be answered as the city and animal shelter consider their partnership. Advocates have inquired whether the new shelter would cost an amount similar to the $1.5 million in public funds that Casper spends on its metro animal facility, and whether there would be more negative outcomes for the animals, while the city wants to understand what its contract provides.
“If we could answer that question, and we could cut backward into those numbers,” Collins said, “there’s a very realistic chance we can do something, and the ball’s in their court.”
The next defined step in the process is for the council’s Finance Committee to recommend or reject the lease agreement next Monday.