San Antonio – If a “winner” had to be chosen for the City of San Antonio’s new $3.7 billion budget, the Animal Care Services department would be the front-runner for the prize.
At $28.5 million, the department’s new operating budget is a 33% increase over the $21.4 million council originally adopted for the current FY 2023 budget. It’s the largest bump ACS has ever received and the largest of any city department in the FY 2024 city budget, which begins Oct. 1.
Now, it will be a question of how well ACS can put the money and its 29 new employees to use. With the city planning to continue pumping additional money into the department over the next few years, ACS Director Shannon Sims acknowledged that meeting the goals he laid out when presenting the department’s budget will be important.
“That’s what the team and I’ve talked about it in the development of this is if we fall on our sword in year one, year two may not look like it’s planned,” said ACS Director Shannon Sims.
FY 2024 GOALS
ACS laid out numerous targets in its Aug. 17 budget presentation, generally tied to an increase in its funding. Here are some of the biggest:
- SPAY/NEUTER SURGERIES: ACS had to shut down both of its fixed-location clinics this year, but they have since reopened. Sims said most of the FY 2024 goal is “getting our capacity back up.” Though the city council added $1.5 million for two spay and neuter storefronts on the East and West Sides, Sims doesn’t anticipate those to actually open for roughly another year - sometime about the end of FY 2024 or early FY 2025.
- FY 2023 - $25,000
- FY 2024 - $44,000
- BITE CALL RESPONSE: The city gets about 3,500 calls to report bites every year. Additional officers are meant to speed up the turnaround for investigating those calls.
- FY 2023 - 30 hours
- FY 2024 - 16 hours
- DANGEROUS DOG COMPLIANCE RATE: Dogs that are officially labeled as “dangerous” have numerous restrictions with which their owners have to comply: a special enclosure, mandatory insurance coverage, a muzzle while being walked, and signage. Part of the budget covers more staff to ensure the owners are following the requirements.
- FY 2023 - 55%
- FY 2024 - 80%
- RESCUES: ACS is able to free up space at its campus with the help of rescue groups. To make it easier for them to take more animals, ACS is increasing its incentives from an average of $84 per animal to a flat $200.
- FY 2023 - $9,500
- FY 2024 - $11,000
- ADOPTIONS: The budget includes 10 new positions, including vet staff, to help with on-campus adoption. But Sims said marketing and outreach will be a big part of boosting their adoption numbers.
- FY 2023 - $5,000
- FY 2024 - $6,500
- CRITICAL CALL RESPONSE: ACS gets about 50,000 critical calls for service related to issues like aggressive dogs, neglect, or animal cruelty. But it said it only has the staff to respond to less than half of those calls. Staff originally presented a three-year plan to get to 100% response, but the city council pushed for a shorter turnaround. So ACS will add seven officers in FY 2024 and 14 in FY 2025.
- FY 2023 - 44%
- FY 2024 - 64%
- FY 2025 - 100%
Sims said he feels “really strong” about his department’s ability to accomplish the goals. But the money to do it comes with the pressure to get it done.
“That’s the blessing and the curse of getting what you’re asking for,” he said.
The budget increase comes on the heels of both the development of the department’s new strategic plan and the death of an elderly man in a brutal dog mauling on the West Side in February.
Though Sims and City Manager Erik Walsh said Ramon Najera’s death didn’t prompt the ACS budget bump, it did have an effect on the priorities.
“I’ll say that the strategic plan is very heavy in terms of enforcement. That likely is a result of that incident that happened in February,” Walsh said after Thursday’s budget vote, also noting that the critical call response rate had not been part of the plan.
Sims said it “would be very naive of me” to think the department would have received as big a bump if the February attack had not happened. The strategic plan would have been coming anyway, but some of the elements were shifted around.
“I think it was incumbent upon us, though, to make sure that Mr. Najera’s situation and his sacrifice didn’t fall on - ‘well, we’ll just keep on how we’re going. Maybe it won’t happen again.’ You know, we had to take dramatic action. I think that that strategic plan supported that action,” Sims said.
The San Antonio City Council had primed ACS for its budget increase this spring when it gave it an extra $848,000 to start addressing its strategic plan. That included expanding its animal care officers apprentice program so new officers would be trained and available for FY 2024.
Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez had pushed during the budget process to add even more officers. Staff’s original plan to tackle the shortfall in responding to critical calls would take three years, adding seven officers every year to improve the response rate to 64%, then 81%, and finally 100%.
McKee-Rodriguez said 64% was still much too low, and asked for the full 21 officers to be added in the first year. However, Sims and Walsh said there would be various hurdles that would make doing that impractical.
Training enough officers would be difficult, Simms said, and the vehicles they have ordered for the three-year plan won’t be in for another 18 months.
Finally, putting that many officers in the field would result in ACS impounding another 17,000 animals every year.
A sudden increase like that could bring the department’s live release rate down from 80% down to “somewhere in the fifties,” he warned
Even with the smaller increase in officers that is planned, Sims said it is “absolutely going to be tough” not to see the live release rate drop.
However, there’s an additional kennel in the final design phase, he said, and the department will have to ensure when it adds officers in the field, they have corresponding staff to support them.
Though Sims welcomes the extra funding, he said there is “no amount of money” that will solve the city’s issues with animals. There also needs to be community buy-in and responsible pet ownership, such as keeping your animals on your property.
“It’s going to take effort from the city,” Sims said. “But if you want a safer city, it starts with you.”