Supervisors Approve Contracts to Build New Animal Shelter

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Orange County's animal services department has been facing increased criticism in recent years.

Orange County supervisors, who’ve faced years of criticism for the conditions at the county’s dilapidated World War II-era animal shelter, approved a series of contracts Tuesday to start the design and construction of a new shelter in Tustin.

The unanimous votes to approve a land swap with the South Orange County Community College District and build the $35-million shelter at the former Marine Corps air base in Tustin represents a belated following through on promises from supervisors dating back to the 1990s to build a replacement animal shelter.

The approvals included awarding a $33 million contract to Irvine-based Snyder Langston L.P. for design and construction, following a competitive bidding process, according to a county staff report.

In an effort to acknowledge ongoing criticisms from animal advocates, Supervisor Todd Spitzer said the county has “obviously gone through some difficult times [and] rightfully so” when it comes to animal services. But he said officials are making improvements and showing they’re “deeply committed” to dogs, cats and other animals.

Back-to-back grand jury reports last year harshly criticized the county animal shelter’s management, saying the shelter is in a state of “utter disrepair,” with health of animals and people alike put at risk.

The situation was so bad, grand jurors wrote, that the county should consider replacing the leadership of the animal services agency and the county’s community resources department, which oversees it. Supervisors and county executives disputed those recommendations and several others.

The concerns go back over a decade, with advocates and the shelter’s own advisory board complaining in 2000 that “the facility is outdated and its leadership isolated and resistant to change,” according to the LA Times.

And animal advocates in recent months have highlighted the county shelter’s high kill rate, and have charged that the county animal services director, Dr. Jennifer Hawkins, has falsely claimed the rate is 6 percent, when the county’s own data shows it’s actually closer to 35 percent. Hawkins has yet to publicly respond to the allegation.

In the wake of last year’s grand jury reports, as well as continuing concerns from advocates, two of the county’s 18 contract cities for animal services have decided to pull out of the system: Laguna Hills and Rancho Santa Margarita. They represent about 2.3 percent of county shelter use, according to county spokeswoman Jean Pasco.

And the city manager of Garden Grove recently wrote a letter to the county saying that while the City Council has been pleased with the services, they are concerned about the county’s projection that the city’s payments will more than double in the coming years.

At Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors sought to emphasize the importance of public input into the new shelter’s design.

“This is definitely a collaborative effort with all the stakeholders and will be” moving forward, said Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett.

Spitzer called on county executive Steve Franks, who oversees animal services, to explain how public input would be incorporated into the design of the new shelter.

Franks said there would be input from a “design advisory board,” comprised of county staff, representatives from contract cities, rescue groups, and the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association.

“In general, it’s intended to draw input from those people who will be using, and interacting, and paying for the new shelter,” said Franks, who directs the county department known as OC Community Resources.

When pressed by Spitzer, Franks explained that the public won’t be invited to the group’s meetings, describing it as more of a “staff working group.” But he said there would be opportunities for public input at separate “presentations.”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson noted that years ago the county thought the Navy would soon be giving up the Tustin air base land where the county had been planning to build a new shelter.

But over a decade later, “the Navy never did part with it,” Nelson said.

“We ultimately had to, through very creative efforts” by county staff, trade land with the community college district, he said. “I appreciate all the effort, because I know it would be easy to just do business as usual,” Nelson said.

At the end of the discussion, Bartlett sought to put a hold on selling the current animal shelter property, citing the possibility of nonprofit groups being able to host animal-related events there.

Spitzer, while supportive of an analysis about what should happen to the property, was apparently concerned about ensuring that the entire board weigh in on what happens. He made a point of emphasizing that all of the supervisors should “get the information at the same time.”

What to do with the current shelter property, which sits next to the county’s Theo Lacy jail and Orangewood Children and Family Center, should be a totally different discussion, Spitzer said.

Update: This story has been updated to include the name of the new shelter’s design and construction contractor and how they were chosen.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.