FAQ: APA! Negotiations of Land Use Agreement with City of Austin 2021

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Nov 04, 2021

Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) understands the uncertainty around its formal Town Lake Animal Center (TLAC) land use agreement with the City of Austin will be a surprise to many of our supporters. We want to emphasize that while we are seeking a change to the terms of our partnership with Austin, we are not changing our commitment to standing by Austin’s shelter animals. Rest assured, Austin Pets Alive! will continue to serve as a lifesaving safety net for pets at risk of euthanasia in Austin and Travis County.

We are grateful for your support during this critical time. We created this document to keep you as informed as possible. We will continue to update you regularly as we move forward with our plans surrounding Town Lake Animal Center.

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Q: Why can’t APA! just agree to the old terms of the licensing agreement with the City of Austin for the Town Lake property?

A: When we started providing no-cost support to the city’s municipal shelter, the Austin Animal Center (AAC), in 2008, we expected the City of Austin and AAC would invest in implementing best practices so that eventually they would be self-sustaining or close to it. Our hope was that as AAC and APA! both progressed and evolved, APA! could then assist in new ways to ensure that Austin is always at the cutting edge, finding new ways to help animals and be the safest community in the country for pets.

In the last year, as the COVID pandemic profoundly impacted our community and our world, we hoped AAC would rise to meet the challenge of this moment. This would have meant:

  • Helping struggling pet owners keep their pets through financial hardship and COVID-related crises; and

  • Implementing programs to get lost pets home, assist people with rehoming their pets if needed, and ensuring a maximum number of pets were housed in foster, not shelter kennels; and

  • proactively communicating with Austin’s pet loving community about COVID, assistance available for pet owners, and other urgent and emergent issues

Unfortunately, AAC has failed to meet these expectations. Instead of the bright future we imagined, with Austin positioned as the nation’s leader in innovative animal services, we have seen AAC’s performance in key areas at historic lows. We believe that the terms in our agreement actually prevent progress because if we were not here and AAC had to uphold the 95% live release rate mandate, they would be seeking real solutions to decrease intake, urgently. Instead, APA! takes in a huge number of animals, many of whom would never be at risk of euthanasia so AAC has a “flush valve” that doesn’t involve any pain on their part which in turn causes them to see alternatives.

For the past five years, we have been attempting to negotiate a new agreement with the Austin Animal Center. Currently, our agreement states that we must pull 3,000 animals per year, including sixty ‘behavior’ dogs who the city has determined to euthanize if they remain at AAC. These arbitrary numbers were established more than a decade ago, when three times the number of animals in Austin were being euthanized for space. Our goal has been to create a partnership in which AAC utilizes proven best practices to perform to at least the standard of other prominent government shelters throughout the country.

Q: Has APA! worked to negotiate with the City?

A: Yes. We have been negotiating with the best intentions but are at an impasse with the Austin Animal Center and City of Austin. Thus far, they will not consider an agreement to set us up for the future and instead remain committed to “business as usual,” hanging on to an antiquated partnership agreement that was appropriate 11 years ago but has almost no relevance when it comes to building the leading, future pet-friendly city in the nation. Our agreement is more than a decade old now, has not changed with the times and now handcuffs Austin in making sustainable progress.

Q: Austin has proudly maintained its status as the nation’s leading No Kill city for a long time now. Why isn’t “business as usual” good enough?

A: The world of animal sheltering has fundamentally changed since the days when APA! began the fight to turn Austin into a No Kill city, in large part because of the early example set by Austin. In fact, since 2011, the budget for AAC has increased by $10 million while intake has remained steadily the same.

Meanwhile, APA! has become a thought leader in animal sheltering. APA! is now working to help the people who love their pets and are struggling to keep them. We don’t own the first communication with people in need, that lives with the city programs. As other cities across the U.S. enthusiastically adopt the new Human Animal Support Services (HASS) model for how municipal animal services will operate in the future, its benefits for the people of Austin are passing us by. The current terms of our agreement, which once supported the innovative thinking and effective changemaking of APA!, are now holding us back and denying our own community the full benefit of our work. As difficult as it would be to leave our space at Town Lake, we are confident we can be of greater assistance to the City of Austin’s pets and people in a new location, free from these restrictions.

Q: If APA! ends its contract with the City of Austin will it cost APA! funding?

A: No . We receive no funding from the City of Austin, and never have. Instead, we have use of the city’s former shelter facility at Town Lake. In exchange, we agreed to support the Austin Animal Center in keeping our city No Kill by taking in animals the city shelter cannot help and would instead have euthanized. This is what is referred to as a “license agreement,” which sets the terms to follow for that land use. We are additionally responsible for maintaining the Town Lake facility, which is deteriorating and becoming increasingly expensive to sustain as a safe place for sheltering animals. Ending this land use agreement may actually save APA! money, as our current cost to take pets from AAC is approximately four million dollars annually. Many of the pets we take today were never, or should have never been, at risk of euthanasia.

While we do currently operate on free property, the agreement that Council signed off on in 2017, promising APA! a large enough chunk of land to rebuild operations, has turned out to be only ¼ to ⅓ the promised size, due to restrictions. Whether we stay at TLAC or not, we are forced to find and purchase another property to house most or all of our operations.

Q: If the Town Lake facility is so expensive to maintain in its current state, why haven’t we built a new facility there yet?

A: To rebuild, we have needed an agreement that commits to our right to stay at Town Lake for the next several decades, under terms that allow us to fulfill our lifesaving mission into the future. We have not been able to reach an agreement or make the land large enough for our full operations. A new facility would also require a multi-million dollar campaign, and APA! donors would not invest in a new facility meant to serve our programs without formal assurance that we would be able to occupy Town Lake long term. This is why an agreement that supports our ability to remain the leader in lifesaving innovation is so critical. Our land use agreement shapes our future, and its present terms would mean we are stifled in innovating further.

Q: Wasn’t a long term agreement to use Town Lake approved in 2017? Why would you leave after you got that?

A: A two-year-long Lamar Beach Master Planning process, which includes the land for APA!, West Austin Youth Association, the YMCA, Austin High and the walking trail, was approved by City Council in 2016. In that plan, the buildable land outlined for APA!’s use was roughly the same amount of space at Town Lake as we occupy currently-about 3.5 acres. The big change was that our assigned space was pushed back from where we currently sit, to include a field that had been previously used by the YMCA. This shift was made to accommodate a planned future move of Cesar Chavez Street further away from the lake which would eventually go through our Davenport building footprint and half of our kennels. In 2017, the council voted to allow us to use the area outlined in the master plan for 75 years but we had to actually nail down the specifics of the agreement before executing it. We have been trying to solve the issues on the land (power lines, railroad, water main, heritage trees, floodplain, etc) and have hit walls in every direction.

Q: Why is AAC at capacity?

A: Intake at AAC has actually declined over the years, even while AAC’s resources have grown. Today, AAC is at capacity because they are backsliding, ignoring basic best practices like pet resources and support services offered daily, proactive lost pet reunification services, assisting pet owners with self-rehoming, and managing a high volume foster program to house 5,000 plus pets in foster homes each year. These are just a few of the measures that would prevent capacity issues at AAC. By not following these and other basic best practices, AAC is unable to manage the flow of animals through the facility and maintain a successful operation.

Q: Why does APA! take animals from communities outside the Austin-area?

A: The mission of APA! has always been to save as many animals at risk of euthanasia as possible. Taking in animals from across the state of Texas has been one pillar of our work for the last decade and is not a new practice. Helping those shelters with fewer resources and higher intake is something that our donors expect from us and is one of the reasons our work is supported nationally. Few shelters in Texas have the support and resources to accomplish what we can in Austin. Our work as an independent, non-profit organization allows us to extend our work to those in greatest need.

As always, APA!’s mission is to intervene to help any animal at risk of unnecessary euthanasia, especially for those shelters that lack resources and programs to help themselves. We never want to turn away an animal in need when the only other option for them is to be killed. AAC has the resources to save many more lives than they are currently, and we hope the City of Austin will hold them accountable for the most responsible use of those taxpayer resources. APA! remains committed to taking in any animal at risk of euthanasia from AAC as we always have.

Q: Will APA! be asked to vacate all operations at the current Town Lake facility if the license agreement is not signed?

A: If we and the city cannot mutually agree on the terms for our tenure at Town Lake, we will have no choice but to move off the property, and APA! will need to find a new place to call home. Even if APA! does sign a new license agreement, we still would be forced to find another location for part of our operations. We hope that we will be granted an exit period that allows for us to find a new facility and move operations without major problems.

We had mutually agreed with the city that the land being offered to us at Town Lake would be sufficient for our operations. However, we have learned in recent years from independent contractors and the City of Austin, that only a fraction of the land is usable due to restrictions around the power lines and water mains that cross the property. Yet, the city still wants us to agree to the same terms we agreed to more than a decade ago before we knew how much of the land was unusable. They are asking for the same commitment from us, for less usable land than we have now.

Q: Where would APA! move its facility?

A: While the loss of this highly successful, public-private partnership on a site that should be considered a crown jewel landmark of Austin will be heartbreaking, we remain committed to our mission, and we will need a new location on which to rebuild Austin Pets Alive!. We need your help and networking for securing a new site(s) on which to provide medical care, house emergency medical cases, and provide longer-term rehabilitation and housing for our dogs with trauma histories and special behavior needs. If you are able to help with securing a new location, please write to deve[email protected].

Q: Why are there “behavior dogs” at AAC that APA! has declined to pull?

A: AAC has traditionally placed a wide variety of pets onto their “attention lists,” some because they show signs of behavioral problems that may mean they are at risk of being euthanized. These behaviors may include being shy, scared of people, being excitable and untrained, or a dog may have previously bitten someone during an unlimited combination of circumstances.

APA!, as noted in the chart below, pulls the majority of these dogs every year for our behavior program. In fact, we pull more dogs each year, outside of the 2020 year of COVID shut down, for behavior than the 5 per month we committed to take in our agreement with the city. These dogs require significantly more time, attention, and cost than other pulled pets. A 2019 study shows that less than one quarter of one percent (< 0.25%) of the dogs taken into AAC and APA! combined, are euthanized for behavior related reasons. This is the small fraction of dogs that APA! declines on.

Q: Why does APA! want to take in animals from outside the five county area now while AAC is at max capacity and transporting Austin animals to other cities?

A: APA! does not oversee, or agree with, the decisions made to 1. transport local Austin animals to other areas by AAC and 2. decline the recommendations by the Austin Animal Advisory Commission to mitigate space issues at AAC. We do prioritize the intake of any animal at risk of euthanasia at AAC and are committed to taking in those animals AAC flags as being at risk. In fact, we do this daily. We encourage you to go back and watch previous meetings of the Austin animal advisory commission, particularly the most recent meeting where AAC leadership states they have taken no action to improve the space issues based on data-driven solutions prepared by the space crisis working group. In fact, when asked if the working group should be removed from the commission's agenda, AAC leadership stated that it was not needed and the shelter was currently doing ok on space. If at any time the city shelter is experiencing space issues, they are able to implement the recommendations by the working group to avoid sending easily adoptable animals to other cities and improve life saving operations right here at home.

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