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An unprecedented last-minute change

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The Board of Supervisors has approved funding for a much-needed new animal shelter in San Francisco. (Mike Koozmin/2011 S.F. Examiner)
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Last Monday, an obscure city committee withdrew proposed funding for a new animal shelter from a bond that San Franciscans will vote on in June. The change was a backroom deal made at the last minute, an unprecedented change in the process by which the City funds major projects.

In an earlier column, I wrote that Animal Care and Control, San Francisco’s city animal shelter, is in desperate need of a new building. The current one is not seismically safe and is likely to collapse during the next earthquake. Plus, it is too small and poorly designed. Overcrowding has resulted in frequent outbreaks of diseases among the animals.

Year after year, proposals for a new shelter have been passed over for funding in favor of other projects. In the meantime, the building continues to deteriorate, putting not only the animals at risk but also the people who work there.

Finally, the Mayor last year announced that funding for a new shelter would be included as one part of a $350 million Public Health and Safety Bond. The bond also included seismic retrofitting at San Francisco General Hospital and a new ambulance dispatch facility.

On Monday, I attended a meeting of the Capital Planning Committee, maybe the most important committee you’ve never heard of. The committee, composed of heads of major city departments, looks at all city-funded capital projects — regardless of how they’re financed — and advises the Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors on which ones should be funded. The meeting was set to include the final approval of details for the June bond before it was sent on to the Board of Supervisors to be put on the ballot.

I was surprised and disappointed when the meeting began with the statement that an agreement had been reached on Friday, just three days before the meeting, to remove the animal shelter from the bond. Instead, the money would be used to modernize homeless shelters and clinics that deal with mental health.

Those are important issues for our city. But it’s wrong to position funding decisions as a decision between helping either people or pets. We can and should fund both.

San Franciscans have a deep, historic commitment to animal welfare. We are The City of St. Francis, after all. The $54 million allocated for the shelter would have solved many of ACC’s overcrowding and seismic problems.

But whether you want a new animal shelter or not, a bad precedent has now been set, and future bonds could be at risk for similar last minute switch-ups.

The long-term planning that goes into the timing and composition of each bond was essentially thrown out the window in this case. A longtime City Hall observer told me he’s never seen such a major change to a bond made so late in the process — only two days before the bond was to be discussed at the Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee.

So where does this leave ACC? The Capital Planning Committee suggested the new shelter could be funded through Certificates of Participation, another mechanism to finance city projects. The funding switch was part of the last-minute agreement.

The mayor and supervisors should follow through on this promise and authorize the necessary Certificates of Participation to fund the new shelter as soon as possible. If we can show that the new animal shelter has been funded by these other means, it will help mute a developing backlash against the shelter-less bond.

The looming disaster if ACC’s current building collapses in an earthquake, for both the animals and the people who work there, must never be allowed to happen.

Sally Stephens lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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