My Turn

Opinion: Town, county, animal shelter need more collaboration


I totally agree with Trish’s recent column regarding the financial problems at Stray Hearts; there is no doubt in my mind that poor management and bad decisions by executive directors, board presidents and board members through the years have been major contributors to the serious difficulties the shelter is facing today. And I don’t exempt the boards that I served on from this criticism; while I believe that we had a fairly good handle on the financial numbers, we didn’t do everything we should or could have to provide support, oversight and guidance to the organization.

But the past is the past, and finger-pointing will do nothing to help the present situation. Hopefully the new board president and executive director can learn from past mistakes and provide the quality of management that the organization needs. But I am seriously concerned about the present financial situation. If the money runs out and you can’t pay the staff or buy food for the animals you have to close the doors, and no amount of good management can change that. I have not seen recent financial reports so don’t know that the situation is that dire, but I fear it could be close.

Assuming I am correct about the severity of the present financial situation, I believe the board’s highest priority must be to come up with a short-term plan to get through the immediate crisis, while also working on a longer term plan to provide stability and sustainability. The two obviously go together, but immediate survivability needs to come first. I assume the board is already working along these lines, in which case I have a few suggestions.

Obviously there are only three ways to solve a problem like this: reduce expenses, increase revenue, or borrow funds somewhere. I would tend to rule out the third, as it is unlikely that any reputable lender would make a loan under these circumstances, and anyone who would do so would charge a ruinous rate, which in effect would only kick the can down the road and make things worse later. So that leaves reducing expenses or increasing revenue.

In theory expenses can be controlled by careful management, and for some expenses this is true. But many are fixed, especially in the short run, and others can only be reduced at the risk of compromising the organization’s mission. In the long run this may be necessary, but only after careful consideration.

Increasing revenues may be the best hope for solving the problem, but this certainly won’t be easy. A fund-raising drive to “Save the Shelter” or something similar might work, but all the well-publicized recent problems will work against this; potential donors would be reluctant to commit funds to a failing organization. I believe the shelter will need to make a convincing case that better management is in place and the problems from the past are behind them, and they now have a credible plan for a sustainable future. Obviously, if this effort is to succeed complete transparency on all issues will be required.

Possibly the most realistic sources for more revenue are the town and county. Through the years relations with these entities have swung between cooperative and adversarial many times. This has happened for various reasons, sometimes driven by issues and sometimes personalities, but at this point there is nothing to be gained by dissecting the past and pointing fingers; if ever there was a time to work together to save the shelter it is now. I can understand the reluctance to put more taxpayer funds into a failing venture without having any control over how those funds are spent. But the two governments surely must realize that if the shelter closes its doors the whole responsibility for animal control and sheltering will fall to them, as well as cleaning up any problems that the shelter leaves behind. Under these circumstances it seems that it would be beneficial for both sides to work together to keep the doors open.

The proposal by the town to pay off the mortgage and let Stray Hearts continue to run the shelter certainly looks like a good place to start. While the elimination of the mortgage payments won’t solve all the financial problems, every bit helps, and there could be some additional cost savings in maintenance and repairs depending on how the deal is structured. Better yet, if the town/county were to buy the entire shelter property at market value it could change the whole financial picture, and possibly provide the resources the organization needs to assure a sustainable future. I have no idea whether or not this idea is possible or feasible, but some version of this might be the best possible solution for the community and, most importantly, for the animals.

Warner is a retired banker who has lived in Taos since 1999. He has served two terms as treasurer on the board of Stray Hearts Animal Shelter.