The city of Lompoc will continue outsourcing animal services to Santa Barbara County after City Council members voted 4-1 to sign a five-year agreement despite rising costs associated with those services.

The decision, however, doesn’t look to be long-term.

Council members gave city staff a six-month timeframe (by Jan. 17, 2023) in which to present other options — namely, cost estimates for fixing the current shelter, building a new one with ARPA funds, or securing new contracts.

Councilwoman Gilda Cordova cast the dissenting vote at the June 21 council meeting and staunchly opposed giving in to a tight July 1 deadline that required the city to sign a five-year contract — or risk losing its animal services.

Instead, Cordova suggested pursuing a deadline extension from the county while continuing to explore other options before agreeing to pay out $1,735,000 over the next five years, or roughly $347,000 per year.

With backing from Councilman Victor Vega, Cordova emphatically requested stronger guidance from city staff and suggested that money would be better used to bring back a full-service shelter to Lompoc. 

Since the county’s closure of Lompoc Animal Center La PAWS, 1501 W. Central Ave., residents have been forced to travel to the county’s Santa Maria facility for shelter services. Access to other services is limited at the center.

“I don’t look at these options as options, because we were given these ‘options’ on the last meeting in June when we are a week-and-a-half away from having to make a decision on this and having to sign a five-year contract,” Cordova said.

Options presented by city staff, which Mayor pro tem Jeremy Ball said lacked necessary data points to make a more informed decision, included contracting with other providers for the same services, conducting a cost analysis for becoming fully self-sufficient, adopting a hybrid model where the city would contract with the county only for shelter services while providing all other services on its own — or a combination of all of the above.

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Lompoc Senior Administrative Analyst Erin Keller gives her report at the June 21 City Council meeting on the quality of animal services provided to Lompoc by the county, prior to the council’s 4-1 vote to sign a five-year service contract.

While City Attorney Jeff Malawy said turning away from the agreement to request an extension was possible, it posed a legal risk to the city should the county decide not to grant an extension.

Mayor Jenelle Osborne was resigned to the fact and assured councilmembers that maintaining services was what was most important “while we figure this out.”

“If nothing else, I disagree with how the county has handled this and I disagree with the service level we’re getting, but I think what we have been provided tonight is a window,” Osborne said. “We know that we have five years to come up with another plan — hopefully we can do that in a year or two. And we know exactly what the cost to get out if it is going to be.”

Although a penalty fee would not be assessed should the city decide to terminate the new agreement early, Lompoc Senior Administrative Analyst Erin Keller, reported that there still would be a cost to exit prematurely — $27,800, or $5,560 over the course of five years.

She explained that the balance to be covered upon termination of the agreement represented general fund monies the county would no longer need to subsidize animal services to Lompoc.

According to the new agreement, services provided to the city by the county do not change, and will continue to include animal sheltering at its Santa Maria facility, field services, rabies control, vicious and restricted dog hearings and animal licensing and permit services. 

Keller credited local nonprofits — Companion Animal Placement Assistance (CAPA), Shadows Fund, C.A.R.E. 4 Paws, K-9 Pals — that stepped up, especially during the COVID crisis, to provide vital animal services to the community. Those services covered include helping pet owners to pay vet bills, providing pet food, training services, collar and other vet needs, as well as holding vaccine and adoption clinics, she said. She also noted that three of four vets in town provide pet licensing.

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Keller reported discrepancies in messaging when she called in as a customer to the Lompoc shelter and recommended members of the public instead call 805-934-6119, ext. 7, to get a live person during hours of operation (Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday closed.)

Her report further painted a picture of flawed servicing to Lompoc, namely that deceased animal pickup remains “at the bottom of their priority list” despite it being a service the county it contracted to provide.

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Keller noted that services for sheltering a stray also continue to prove inadequate in Lompoc. For instance, a found dog without a microchip must either be transported to one of two shelters with low capacity or the good Samaritan is asked to keep the stray until Animal Control can retrieve it within two days. Found pets with microchips are widely handled by local vets who can identify the animal and reunite it with its owners, Keller said.

“The community wants the Lompoc shelter open,” she added.

During public comment, members of the community called in, showed up and spoke out in favor of returning animal services back to Lompoc.

Local resident Kathy Howard expressed her frustration with a tired issue that she fears will never get resolved.

“It bothers me a lot to hear this topic come up over and over again, and there are no solutions to it,” she said. “Instead of trying to solve it here, maybe you ought to consult with towns that are comparable to Lompoc — and Carpinteria is not one of them. I don’t’ want to see it on the agenda again in another three or five years.”

Longtime resident Nik Nikolenko, “a proud cat and dog owner,” called for a better fiscal decision.

“It’s a shame that we are paying the county $300,000 a year for services not in our community. That money can be spent doing the needed repairs to our own facility — the facility that we have here in our community,” he said. “In a community of almost 50,000 people, we need our own animal shelter.”

At the top of the meeting, it was announced that county representatives would not be in attendance due to an Animal Services advisory meeting running concurrently, however, Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso called in during public comment to express her willingness on behalf the county to address concerns about the quality of service.

“I apologize for the perceptions that we are not doing a good job in Lompoc,” she said. “Yes, we can definitely improve on our services, however, I do want to correct that we are providing licenses on Tuesday, we are doing adoptions — albeit, it is from Santa Maria.”

Do-Reynoso admitted the county continues to face issues with its lagging volunteer program and deficient facilities in Lompoc, but assured the council that rebuilding the volunteer program and repairing the facilities to ensure that Lompoc had its own viable shelter were high priorities.

She suggested that she and her team schedule a time to present its services “and problem solve this situation with your council.”

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Lisa André covers lifestyle and local news for Santa Ynez Valley News and Lompoc Record, editions of the Santa Maria Times.