OLIVETTE — St. Louis County officials on Wednesday launched long-discussed plans to find a nonprofit to run the pet shelter here, two years after an external audit dinged the facility for poor conditions and for using paperwork to cover up high kill rates.
Public Health Deputy Director Spring Schmidt said conditions at the facility have improved dramatically since the report, but that the shelter would benefit from nonprofit management that would have more flexibility than government operators to raise funds, hire and retain staff, and work with volunteers and other community groups.
“We’re not ducking our responsibility here,” Schmidt said. “We have given this a lot of thought.”
A formal request for proposals issued Wednesday calls for a nonprofit — or multiple nonprofits — that can manage a range of daily responsibilities at the shelter for the next five years. The contract includes an option for three yearlong extensions, but did not set a cap on the contract price.
Schmidt said the county wanted flexibility, but expects the cost to be less than the $4 million a year the department currently spends to both run the shelter and conduct animal control services — including abuse investigations, disease prevention and stray control — throughout the county.
“We are really looking for a nonprofit partner with significant experience, expertise, and capacity to really help us build from scratch,” she said.
Officials discussed the move in late 2019, but delayed issuing a contract as it focused on fighting the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Schmidt said.
The idea was prompted by outcry from animal welfare advocates going as far back as early 2018, when several volunteers told the council that Beth Vesco Mock, the director installed in late 2017 by then-County Executive Steve Stenger, had created a hostile work environment and poor conditions for animals.
Stenger fired Vesco-Mock after six months on the job amid allegations she used racist language and bullied employees and moved the shelter from the executive office’s control back under the county’s public health department.
In July 2019, a 268-page external audit authorized by the council revealed the shelter had greatly underreported kill rates by forcing pet owners surrendering animals to check a box labeled “ORE,” without explaining the acronym meant the owner was requesting euthanasia for the pet. The audit also found the shelter was unable to control infectious disease because of overcapacity and held animals longer than necessary.
County Executive Sam Page’s administration vowed to reform the facility, but some employees told the council they were in the dark about possible changes and concerned they could be fired if the county decided to hand the center to a private operator.
Complaints to the council continued until as recently as May, after Mandy Ryan, a former county animal population manager, alleged she was fired in December after a year on the job for raising workplace-related concerns. In a 66-page memo sent to the council, Ryan said she had opposed plans by the county to “privatize” the shelter by hiring a third-party group to oversee operations.
Schmidt acknowledged Wednesday that the contract could end up shuffling jobs for the about 30 employees at the shelter, but promised the county would help employees find new work. That could include working directly for the new shelter operator or becoming an animal control officer with the county.
“We are listening to employees in sessions, we will be engaged,” Schmidt said. “We’ve spoken with county personnel as well as our own like HR staff, they are all prepared to support this.”
Dr. Faisal Khan, the acting health director, told the council in May that complaints were “well-meaning but misinformed,” and said euthanasia rates dropped from 20% in August 2019 to 4% in 2020 and that about 95% of animals brought to the shelter are released alive.
But he acknowledged the facility has been slow to revamp its volunteer program and improve relationships with outside pet shelters and rescue operations and has struggled to retain veterinarians who have left for better-paying jobs elsewhere. He promised to develop a long-term plan for the shelter.
Schmidt said Wednesday that Khan determined a nonprofit would be better equipped to run the shelter. That would allow the county to shift its resources toward animal control and prevention, including managing stray and feral animals, enforcing property ordinances and investigating neglect and abuse.
In the city of St. Louis, nonprofits have helped run the pet shelter since 2017 and assisted the city with animal control and care services in years prior, while the city handles enforcement of animal control ordinances.