Council, residents debate future of animal control
Residents packed the Cloquet City Council Chambers on Tuesday, July 17, most of them for a reason not on the agenda: Friends of Animals Humane Society announced last week it was broke and closing by Aug. 5.
Volunteers came to ask the city to work with the county and others to save the Humane Society, or some different version of the animal shelter. Others came to talk about the importance of looking beyond ourselves to widen our "circle of compassion." And they came to ask that the city keep the lines of communication open with FOA and its supporters and, in at least a couple of cases, to chide them for not doing a better job of negotiating with the longtime Humane Society.
City Administrator Aaron Reeves told the crowd he had no idea the shelter was in dire financial straits and said the news of the closing came as a complete surprise.
"We were never told they were potentially going to close — only what it takes to break even on strays," Reeves told the crowd and the Council.
"I thought we were saving FOA money by not sending our strays there," he added later, claiming that FOA Director Mary Nelson only told him and other officials that the strays were costing FOA more money than they took in, versus the owner-surrendered dogs.
Until earlier this month, the Humane Society never publicly mentioned that the shelter was in the red after costs to remodel the former county building ran far beyond the budget and left FOA in debt.
Reeves said the news of the imminent closure also threw a major wrench into the city's options for future animal control, since most of the options he's been researching since March assumed there would be a humane society willing to care for and adopt out strays after the city completed the required five-day holding period.
Now, instead of three choices — rescind the city's ordinance banning stray animals and allow them to roam; sign the more expensive contract with FOA to continue its stray services; or build a larger 10-kennel city-run impound for strays — he said there was really only one that he could recommend in good faith to the Council: Rescind the city ordinance.
"The more we've learned, the more we've found there is not a cheap way to do this," Reeves said.
Additional expenses like air exchange and sanitation that make building an animal shelter very expensive, he said, and it wouldn't make sense to build a new shelter when there's already one on Avenue B in Cloquet.
The Council took no action Tuesday.
City councilors had questions for Reeves and for audience members who spoke, like Diane Parkhurst, who co-founded the organization with Margaret Mell about 35 years ago.
"Back then, if an animal went to the shelter, they either went back to the owner or they died; there was no adoption," she said.
Her husband, Steven Parkhurst, talked about the "very difficult" negotiations between the city since March. At the same time, some FOA staff members offered to give the Council "the real story" that they see every day working there. They also offered different numbers than previously discussed.
Ward 3 Councilor Roger Maki referenced a line from the movie "Cool Hand Luke."
"I think what we have here is a failure to communicate," he said. I think the best option is to work with FOA to get it back up and running and have good service at a fair cost."
County Commissioner and Cloquet resident Tom Proulx agreed with Maki, and noted that Brenner sits on the FOA board.
The two commissioners are still in communication with FOA, and Brenner said the Humane Society is bringing details of costs and a business plan to the county board meeting in August.
Brenner said the county could still look at levying money on all county taxpayers to pay for the shelter.
"A number of people pay twice (to FOA through taxes)," Brenner said, explaining that a portion of his taxes paid to the city of Cloquet and to the county go toward paying the shelter.
"It's a reasonable option, but it takes a number of votes," he added. He and Proulx said it would take three votes out of five, and they were two votes in favor of the levy solution. Mayor Dave Hallback suggested audience members and other interested residents contact the other county commissioners.
In the meantime, the city has constructed a small kennel, with room to hold two or three animals. For another month, the city has a contract with Animal Allies in Duluth to take any strays, but that Humane Society told the city it does not have the resources to continue with that contract after August.
Reeves said the small kennel will likely be kept for dangerous animals if the city rescinds its stray ordinance, at least on a short-term basis until a solution is found for the Humane Society.
Watch video of the Cloquet City Council meeting at pinejournal.com.