Hopes run high

Troubled Stray Hearts Animal Shelter reorganizes, aims for financial stability


Correction appended.

After losing former Executive Director Jennifer Gfeller on July 4, following just a bit more than three short months of employment, Stray Hearts Animal Shelter struggles to keep its doors open for the animals as financial issues loom over the organization.

The shelter has gone through two directors and an interim director - as well as the loss of its in-house veterinarian - in just the past year. Stray Hearts Animal Shelter has been reluctant to share financial information with both Gfeller, according to an email from her when she quit, as well as The Taos News. Additionally, overcrowding, inefficiency and a lack of funding have been constant issues for the shelter, according to the previous long-term director, Harvey Yocum, in an Aug. 19, 2016, Taos News article. He called the circumstances leading up to his departure "pretty ugly."

Like many nonprofit agencies that operate at a continuous loss or barely break even, Stray Hearts, Taos County's primary community animal shelter, struggles to make ends meet. Annually, the shelter's revenues have ranged between $529,000 and $697,000 a year since 2012. (Taos Feral Feline Friends also has a shelter but only for cats.) Stray Hearts' revenues currently include a combined monthly total of $20,000 from town of Taos ($8,000) and Taos County governments ($12,000). With an average monthly budget of about $56,000, Stray Hearts' expenditures have surpassed its revenues since 2014.

"You're fighting so many fires just to stay afloat that you don't have time for a long-term plan," said former Stray Hearts Board Treasurer Carol Valade. "You just never get ahead."

Valade, along with others who have worked with finances at the shelter, say that money has been tight at the shelter for some time and there is no definitive plan or even proposed solution to resolve the money woes. The board, in a recent press release, said it will be developing a new business model, including financial strategies to bring in a constant flow of revenue to the shelter, but the board did not give specifics.

According to the most recent federal tax information as of 2015, SHAS received $393,936 in contributions and grants. Of the revenue for that year, $136,769 came directly from fundraising events and an additional $303,752 flowed in from program service revenue, which includes government contract monies and spay/neuter and adoption fees. For the 2015 tax year, revenue for the shelter totaled $697,688, which would normally look great except that the total expenditures for the year came in at $724,748.

Stray Hearts is currently caring for 125 dogs and 123 cats, more than double the shelter's capacity for animals, according to the board. According to SHAS Board President Barbara Ann Downs vanCalsem, per day, it costs the shelter an average of $18 per dog and $12 per cat, which includes the utility, employee and care costs for the pets.

The shelter employs 16 part- and full-time workers at a total payroll cost of $465,315.24 as of September 2016. Those salaries and benefits included $53,470 for the shelter director in 2016; the board increased the director's salary to $85,000 when Gfeller was hired. Members of the board said in an interview Tuesday (Aug. 1) that they thought they could hire a new director for less than half that amount.

Stray Hearts' food expenses in 2016, according to a budget obtained by The Taos News, totaled $32,413.58 for the year to feed the animals that the shelter houses. A July 18 Facebook post from the shelter indicated it also received a donation of 80 bags of pet food, but board members say that's not enough for the year.

"Everybody always says, 'What is the biggest issue here?' And we say, 'Money, lack of funding,'" said Downs vanCalsem.

Downs vanCalsem has led the board since February and says its members are working on a financial strategy for the current year, which includes hiring a new shelter director and constantly looking for more revenue.

With $240,000 guaranteed per year from town and county governments combined, the shelter is still lacking a concrete, steady flow of money to cover the remaining costs of running a shelter, which totaled $860,852.57 in 2016. The town recently increased its payments to the shelter by an additional $333.33 per month until the end of December.

"They are the one organization in town who can really accommodate our need for animal control services," said town Councilman Darien Fernandez, a former Stray Hearts board member. "Otherwise, what is our animal control officer going to do when she picks up a stray animal?"

Other shelters in the area also have a hard time keeping up with finances, as the annual costs to run a shelter never seem to decline. Española Valley Humane Society shelter operates on a budget of $41,000 per month. The shelter's staff includes a part-time manager, two full-time supervisors, five kennel attendants, as well as a shelter veterinarian for around 20 hours per week. The Española shelter currently houses around 140 animals.

The Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society had more than 200 cats and dogs as of Aug. 1.

The Española shelter does euthanize dogs and cats, while Stray Hearts prides itself as being a "no-kill" animal shelter, which means it only euthanizes animals that are terminally diseased or have extreme behavioral issues.

The Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society also euthanizes, but only when the animals are "terminally ill or considered dangerous," according to the shelter's website. "We follow a 'no-kill' [ethic]. We do not euthanize animals for reasons of space." Still, the Santa Fe shelter does not call itself a "no-kill" shelter in order to avoid "giving a false impression to the public."

No-kill animal shelters, like Stray Hearts, run a different style of operation in which animals that come in stay until they are transferred to another shelter or adopted; this sometimes means an animal may be at the shelter for months. As an open-admission shelter, it does not turn away an animal due to temperament or lack of capacity. Board members agree that this has been a challenge in keeping the doors open, as holding animals for extended periods adds to the cost of running the shelter. Despite the high costs of operating as a no-kill shelter, the Stray Hearts board said it will not adopt euthanasia as a common practice for Stray Hearts animals.

"We're really striving right now to let the community know us and see how hard we're working," said Downs vanCalsem. "It's for the community."

Heavily reliant on donations for revenue, Stray Hearts currently has no publicly announced concrete plan for new revenue streams other than the money it receives from the town and the county. The shelter holds annual fundraisers, places jars around town and asks for money when needed to make up annual budget shortfalls. The shelter relies heavily on fundraisers, such as radiothon and "Dog Days" events. However, according to the board, this summer's "Dog Days" event brought in about one-third of the revenue of the previous year's fundraiser.

One stream of revenue for the animal shelters in Santa Fe and Española Valley are thrift stores, where members of the community can shop and the money raised goes to the shelters. These stores employ several people from Española and Santa Fe shelters and, according to Santa Fe Animal Shelter Director Dr. Jennifer Steketee, greatly help in raising funds for the shelters.

In addition, Santa Fe Animal Shelter has an endowment; interest from the invested endowment is reserved for emergency payments.

Members of the Stray Hearts shelter board said they are looking at possibly opening a thrift store to provide a new revenue stream in the future. But staff would be all volunteer, said Downs vanCalsem.

But they offered little else in terms of their business plan for keeping the shelter afloat.

Community members and leaders do not want to see the shelter suffer and have expressed the need to help the area's only animal shelter open. Stray Hearts is the only shelter in Taos County where town and county animal control officers take stray animals. If the shelter closed, Stray Hearts Board Treasurer Kay Kimmel said there would be packs of wild strays running about town.

"We're working with the board to try and find a permanent solution to their financial difficulties," said Taos Town Manager Rick Bellis on Stray Hearts' financial situation.

Correction: The original version of this story said Stray Hearts was the only Taos County animal shelter; Taos Feral Feline Friends does have a shelter for cats and a feline spay, neuter and release program.