Did Missouri City officials retaliate against volunteers in the Municipal Volunteer Program who publicly aired their animal shelter concerns and encouraged residents to question the city?
The question, which has been brewing in print and social media and led to protestors packing the second floor of City Hall, came to a head during a recent Monday night City Council meeting.
Volunteers claim that once they publicly challenged city officials for underfunding the shelter and encouraged the public to complain in letters and emails to the council, they were locked out of the facility and denied the ability to photograph the animals for online marketing purposes.
When Valerie Tolman, recognized by the city as Volunteer of the Year for her work at the shelter, wrote a letter to the editor in the Fort Bend Star about the Dec. 4 special meeting where she said, “Councilman Wyatt, the Mayor and some administrators seem to be more interested in attacking and bullying city residents than fixing the issues at the shelter,” things got ugly, she said.
“Within a few hours of that letter to the editor in the paper hitting the streets, a city employee ransacked the medicine room for the animals. Everything was taken away. How is withholding meds helping animals? Now I can’t say for certain strong-arm tactics weren’t in retaliation, but timing is coincidence,” she told the Council on Dec. 18.
The city said medicine at the shelter was confiscated and examined after the city staff learned that volunteers stored prescription medicine at the shelter. It’s been done for years, say volunteers, but the city feigned surprise, they said.
An examination of that medicine by a licensed veterinarian found expired medications, medication prescribed to individuals who are not city volunteers or employees and several alleged controlled substances, according to a city press release.
The medicine was turned over to public safety officials and the over-the-counter drugs later returned to the volunteers. The prescription meds were not returned.
Since the room was packed, City Manager Anthony Snipes and Mayor Allen Owen made a point to speak before public comments to say they appreciated and applauded the work of the volunteers but changes were already planned.
One of those changes is a review of procedures and processes related to drugs and medicines, Snipes said. The city is also bringing in the Texas Department of Health and Human Services and requested an investigator be assigned to conduct a review of policies and procedures at the shelter.
He also asked the IT department to use software to track animals in the shelter, document their welfare and medical requirements, publicize adoptable animals online, manage staff tasks and deal with complaints and licensing.
“This is a very serious matter and my team is thoroughly reviewing Animal Services Operations and Municipal Volunteer Program policies at this time,” Snipes said.
Volunteers said the animals received vaccinations, flea and tick medicine, antibiotics and pain medicine when needed under their care. Volunteers also tracked the animals and input the information on a spreadsheet for the city. Tolman worried that the city was trying to cast aspersions on the team because they made their concerns public.
Tolman, who oversees 63 volunteers, said she tried for more than two years to get the city to hire a part-time worker to be present for pet owners looking for lost animals and visitors wanting to bring home a furry friend. Nothing happened so she went to the council.
The shelter has animal control officers who are usually on the road, so the doors to the shelter were usually locked. The volunteers had key access but were often in the back playing with the animals getting them socialized or caring for sick animals so the doors were locked to the public.
Tolman was one of nearly a dozen speakers to address the council about their fears for the future of the shelter which used to be known as the place where potential pets went to die with 98 percent of the cats and 68 percent of the dogs getting euthanized yearly.
The kill rate for animals entering the Missouri City Animal Shelter dropped significantly once shelter volunteers got organized in 2014 under Tolman’s leadership. Last year 70 percent of the dogs were rescued, adopted or released back to their owners, according to tracking records. They said they saved 1,000 dogs in three years.
“We raised $40,000 this year alone and volunteers worked long hours,” said Tolman.
She said some of the council complained about emails and said volunteers didn’t follow protocol.
“Guys, this is what democracy looks like. Do you want animals killed because your ego was bruised?” she said.
The city said it is giving the animal shelter more scrutiny as part of the fiscal year 2018 business plan.
“Staff have identified several updates to the program, including an annual recertification process, new training processes and rules and regulations related to volunteer supervision. Outside legal counsel has also been secured to review and provide essential feedback to this process to ensure that the needs of all city staff and volunteers are met across all departments and programs. MVPs will receive further details on policy and procedure updates at the start of the calendar year 2018 at the city’s second MVP Input Forum,” ??? said.
The city also amended its policy to allow volunteers to continue taking pictures.
“If an area that is being photographed or filmed is open to the public, that area may continue to be photographed or filmed,” Snipes said.
In her letter, Tolman pointed out that Missouri City us underfunded compared to neighboring shelters in Alvin, Pearland, Rosenberg and Sugar Land.
“Councilman Wyatt, Mayor Allen Owen and City Manager Anthony Snipes I would say this is not personal. It is just math. This year’s budget for Missouri City animal services is $219,000. That comes to an expenditure of $2.93 per citizen per year to cover all animal control salaries and shelter expenses. Compare that to Sugar Land at $702,000 or $8 per resident, Alvin at $440,000 or $16.45 per resident, Rosenberg at $258,000 or $6.98 per resident, and Pearland at $984,000 or $8.66 per resident.
“Because of Missouri City’s unreasonably low funding, the shelter’s door is always locked and the phone is seldom answered. An increase of only $17,000 a year would mean an employee would be in the office to serve the public every weekday afternoon helping to reunite animals with their owners and reducing the number of animals killed by the city each year. An increase of $40,000 would man the office full-time,” Tolman wrote.
Snipes said the city is reviewing shelter fees and identifying ways additional funds may be used for staffing and programming in the future.
The mayor said that due to limited budget resources, “there were also a number of citywide projects that were not fully funded, including public safety initiatives, fleet maintenance requests, and IT infrastructure updates.”
“Our budget was built on city council’s strategic visioning process that included input from all departments, a citywide survey, and citizen engagement.”
Tolman said she took the survey and there was no way to introduce concerns about the shelter.
Snipes added that, “citizen partnerships, through city initiatives like the Municipal Volunteer Program, are essential to the overall success of operations. These strategic alliances help staff to meet its mission of providing outstanding customer service to members of our diverse community—including the city’s pet and animal populations.”