City Hall — Elusive Animal Control Contract Baffles City Officials

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Elusive Animal Control Contract Baffles City Officials

The City of Birmingham is under pressure to sign a new animal control contract that the Jefferson County Commission has yet to produce.

For months, the city of Birmingham and the Jefferson County Commission have been at odds over pursuit of a joint contract on animal control services. The never-ending drama took a predictable turn on May 4, when the County Commission awarded the contract for animal control services to current provider, Steve Smith, president of BJC Animal Control.

The commission had given the City until May 18 to decide whether it would maintain joint animal control with the County or seek separate services. On May 11, the Birmingham City Council voted to ask the commission to delay signing the contract for 30 days. (If the contract is not ratified by the City, the County will proceed with a separate agreement for animal control services without the City.) Should the contract be terminated at the end of that period, according to Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, the City will have had some time to determine the appraised value of the animal shelter and other assets. (Birmingham would have to pay the County 45 percent of that appraised worth 14 days following dissolution of the contract.) The City would then be forced to provide animal control without the County. Birmingham is currently receiving services under a series of extensions of the contract that BJC Animal Control has held since 1997. In a May 13 meeting, the County Commission decided to delay signing the contract until June 1, allotting the City half of the time requested.

“No elected official with an ounce of sense would approve something they’ve never seen before.” —City Councilor Valerie Abbott

According to Charles Long, assistant to County Commission President Larry Langford, the final draft of the contract is not yet complete due to “caveats” that include education and a low-cost spay and neutering program requested by the Animal Control Advisory Board created by the County Commission. The deadline for completing the contract is June 1, the same day the City must make a decision to stay with the County or go it alone. Long could not give even a ballpark date for when the contract will be completed. “Between now and June 1, a contract will be drafted,” said Long in a May 14 interview. “The City will have the opportunity to take a look at that contract when it’s completed.” He added that the County’s purchasing and legal departments understand the importance of allowing ample time for the contract to be reviewed. “We’re not working to alienate the City in giving them an opportunity to take a look at the document,” he said. “It’s just to make sure that we get it right, because everyone expects us to get it wrong.”

Mayor Kincaid, however, questions the County Commission’s urgency to get the contract signed. “Why is there such an accelerated pace to get this signed in the face of their own advisory committee advising against it?” (The advisory board recommended the contract be awarded to Dan Bugg of Hot Springs, Arkansas, though his bid was $1.6 million, as opposed to Smith’s bid of $1,052,000, primarily due to Bugg’s inclusion of “significant capital expenditures”—four new vehicles, necessary improvements to the physical facility, an increased training budget, and more personnel).

Kincaid has criticized the County for ignoring the City’s input on the RFP (request for proposal) that was sent out to solicit bids from prospective vendors. At a May 11 press conference, Kincaid reiterated his opinion that the RFP was written to benefit the current vendor, BJC Animal Control. “You’d think that anyone paying two-thirds of the freight would probably not be the tail wagging the dog when it comes to this. We’ve asked for reasonable input into the RFP so that it would not appear to be slanted toward one provider,” said Kincaid, complaining that the City was paying the lion’s share of the current contract, more than $600,000 a year, while surrounding municipalities contract with Steve Smith for services at $75 an hour. “I would defy the County to have the quality of animal control that they have had for $350,000, because that’s all they’re putting in.” Kincaid added that he has not received a satisfactory response from the County regarding an audit of the escrow account, which is maintained to make improvements to the animal control facility.

Dr. Barbara Monaghan, chairperson of the advisory board created by the County Commission, expressed concern that the contract being considered by the County Commission has two one-year extensions, potentially extending the contract with Smith through 2007. “It’s my opinion that we should not maintain the same relationship with (Smith) for the next three years,” said Monaghan. “At every 12-month period there ought to be a quality review, and we need to lift the standards incrementally every year that he has the contract until we are in the place where we need to be.” Monaghan also wants the standards of the adoption and education programs that were to be built into the contract to increase every year. She has no illusions that all of the board’s wishes will be addressed. “I’m not naïve enough to think that if I took issue with a specific point of the contract that they would likely review it and change it. I’m becoming a little more cynical about the way things are,” said Monaghan in a May 13 interview.

“That’s very nice of them” was City Councilor Valerie Abbott’s sarcastic response to the County Commission granting the City 14 days instead of the requested 30-day period. “Considering that we don’t even have a copy of the contract to look at, that’s very generous of them,” said the councilor. “From the City of Birmingham’s standpoint, if we don’t get any extra time, of course we can’t approve it. No elected official with an ounce of sense would approve something they’ve never seen before. Or approve something they’ve just been handed. Surely the people at the County Commission don’t think we’re that stupid. So, I’m just assuming that the reason they decided to give us that very generous 14 days was the fact that even they haven’t read the contract yet because it hasn’t been written. But, of course, that’s just my guess, because the County doesn’t communicate with us.”

In an interview directly following the May 13 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Bettye Fine Collins expressed dismay that the City and County could potentially have separate animal control services: “I think it would be far better for us to have a cooperative agreement on this operation, so I hope it can be worked out . . . In the best of worlds, I think it would be better if some agency like the Humane Society had control of this.” Collins added she did not initially vote for Steve Smith to have the contract. “I didn’t vote for him to have that contract originally because he worked for the Health Department and apparently inspected restaurants. I didn’t think he had the background or training for it,” explained the commissioner. Collins seemed unaware of the advisory committee’s recommendation of the higher bidder instead of Smith. “I don’t know when they [the advisory board] meet,” said Collins. “I probably need to start going to some of the meetings to hear what’s happening.” She added that none of her suggested appointees to the advisory board membership were chosen.

Collins said she has not been a party to negotiations, as animal control does not fall under the purview of her office. Regarding criticism that BJC Animal Control has not been properly audited, Collins responded, “If you give a person a contract, and they are to operate under that contract, I’m not too sure that after you agree to pay them this amount of money that it’s our role to do a financial audit on the operation. He’s an independent contractor, and he contracts to us for a service . . . I don’t really know if it’s a matter to be audited . . . then I would think that the Office of Public Examiners would require us to do that. The only thing that I can suggest about that would be that we set up some form of evaluation for his operation.” Collins said she’d like some input to set up an evaluation for independent contractors. “All I can do is just evaluate their performance, . . . and how the monies are spent to provide that service would not be mine to judge, I would think,” she concluded. At the end of the interview, Commissioner Collins told this reporter to stop by her office that afternoon to pick up a copy of the contract. Twenty minutes later, someone from her office phoned to say that there was no finalized contract available. &


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