It would be an understatement to say Animal Welfare has been one of the city of Albuquerque’s most consistently troubled and controversial departments, arguably taking a back seat only to police.
Mayors from Martin Chávez to Richard Berry to Tim Keller, who currently occupies the office, have pledged to fix problems that have been wide ranging over the years – from allegations of needlessly euthanizing animals that didn’t need or deserve to die on one hand, to recklessly adopting out dangerous dogs to unsuspecting owners in an effort to make the numbers look good.
Looking at department history, you can throw in financial shenanigans, questionable allocation of resources (remember the surgery suite used as a break room?), personnel upheaval, animals allegedly funneled out the back door to other organizations, and the challenges of melding professional staff with dedicated but understandably emotional volunteers whose services the department relies on, and you have an operation that has proven to be as unmanageable as a bunch of feral cats.
Keller’s office told Journal reporters that fixing one of the city’s “most historically broken departments will never be without bumps,” but that it has “absolutely taken a 180-degree return” under the current administration.
That generous self-assessment comes after the release of city Office of the Inspector General reports that detailed a long and bitter battle with a high-profile volunteer, found serious problems with a no-bid – and possibly fraudulent – contract and raised questions about how the city determined it had achieved “no kill” status, a designation leaders touted last year when they said the shelter achieved a 90% save rate.
Those statistics sound impressive, except an OIG report released last December found the number of animals recorded as alive (in the shelter or elsewhere) along with the number that had died (by euthanasia or otherwise) didn’t add up to the total number reportedly in the shelter’s care. In fact, investigators deemed that 378 animals were “unaccounted for” in the department’s software tracking system in fiscal 2019. That’s important. The number of animals put down and the reason for those decisions goes to the heart of AWD’s mission and public support for it.
Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael told the Journal last week the fault lies with an old computer system called Chameleon, and that too many people had access to data entry while not requiring everything to be entered. He says several weeks of computer updates and investigation determined “99% of those animals” are accounted for, most in foster care. He also said the system has been upgraded to address the issues.
Meanwhile, the OIG also found that a review of 40 euthanasia cases in fiscal 2018 and 2019 turned up questions in nine of them, including a case that cited no reason an animal was put down. Another supposedly was put down for Parvo even though it had tested negative.
Then there is the money.
The OIG found problems while probing an allegation that Animal Welfare had hired an outside contractor under a no-bid contract as a “front” to bring in a subcontractor who had worked for various city departments and who now lives in Florida. The OIG found the contractor was paid $50,000 from July 2018 to May 2019 for work that was only vaguely described in invoices. “It cannot be determined exactly what services were provided to the City or how the amount of compensation on each invoice was calculated,” the OIG found.
Rael says procurement policies have been tightened, the outside contractor and sub have been banned from doing business with the city per the IG’s recommendation, and the city is “in conversation about what to do” regarding the mystery $50K expenditure.
But the OIG found evidence of “favoritism, collusion and conflict of interest.” Those aren’t good terms when applied to a department with 143 employees and an annual budget of about $12.5 million. Meanwhile, the department is on its fourth director in three years, including interim directors.
Chávez led the charge to make us a no-kill city in 2005, using his 10-week-old pup named “Dukes” to rally support. Dukes, part lab and part Australian shepherd, attended high-level meetings, news conferences and many other functions, growing up and becoming the mascot for ending euthanasia at city animal shelters.
“The goal,” Chávez, said, “is to be a no-kill city.”
That is a laudable goal.
But the public needs to have confidence in this department and its numbers. And in knowing it isn’t plagued by garden-variety corruption with public dollars.
So while Rael says the Keller administration has made improvements at Animal Welfare, especially in the quality of care for animals, it’s time to move this issue up another level, to state Auditor Brian Colón. He can bring the outside look necessary to dig into the numbers in how the city is handling euthanasia and adoption of our four-legged friends. If the city has truly turned the corner, he can confirm that – or not. And he’s the right person to make sure there is legal accountability in the form of criminal prosecution if there was fraud in the contracting process.
Residents of this city, dedicated employees and volunteers at Animal Welfare, and the thousands of pets that come into city custody every year deserve at least that.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.