Board of Finance Nixes Simmons Plan to Replace Stamford’s Aging Animal Shelter

Cages in Stamford's animal shelter on Magee Avenue (CT Examiner)


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STAMFORD – From one decade to the next, citizen groups have tried to get the city to replace the animal shelter on Magee Avenue.

But the small cinder-block building dating to 1960 remains.

City officials have long acknowledged that the shelter has been underfunded and poorly maintained.

But, even with walls that are crumbling, metal door frames that are rusting, paint that is peeling, and every inch of the old structure in use, the Board of Finance at its July meeting rejected a request by Mayor Caroline Simmons for $320,300 to pay an architect to design a new shelter for the site. 

The opposition was led by finance board member Dennis Mahoney, who said the architect’s fee is too much, the project cost of nearly $5 million is too high, and the size of the new shelter is too big.

“I’m all for fixing it, but not at this size and scope,” Mahoney said. 

The proposed shelter, at 7,320 square feet, should be cut in half, he said. If it were 3,700 square feet, it would be considerably bigger than the existing building of 2,400 square feet, Mahoney said.

He’d hoped that city officials would “see the wisdom of building a smaller shelter and still being light years ahead of what we have,” he said.

City Engineer Lou Casolo said the $5 million price tag is right for a building that must meet modern codes for sanitation, ventilation and public safety. Design costs are typically about 7 percent of the total, so “it’s in line,” Casolo said.

Mahoney, a Republican, was able to defeat the funding request with a “no” vote from one other board member, fellow Republican J.R. McMullen. Two Democrats, Mary Lou Rinaldi and Geoff Alswanger, voted yes, but a tie vote fails.

Two other Democrats, Richard Freedman and Laura Burwick, did not vote. Freedman abstained because his wife, Nancy Freedman, heads the Stamford Animal Shelter Alliance, which has been raising money for a new building. Burwick said she abstained because, even though the shelter is “deplorable for animals and the people who work there and the people who visit there,” the price tag should come down.

‘We cut back’

It already has, said Tilford Cobb, manager of the Stamford Animal Control Center, pointing Monday to the original plan. 

“We cut back the number of quarantine rooms. We cut out the garage. We cut down on outdoor space. We cut the number of kennels. We cut the medical room where visiting veterinarians could help us with injured animals,” Cobb said. “We included what we need, and we eliminated things to keep costs down.”

The new design includes a quarantine area, he said.

“We lost the whole cat room, twice, because we brought in a sick cat,” Cobb said. “We’ve had all the dogs get parvo. I mean, we lose animals because of a building?”

The plans include a multi-purpose room.

“We need it for the school kids who come here. We teach kids about wildlife, bite prevention, pet care,” Cobb said. “We also need it for the staff – right now we have no place to eat our lunch. And we would use it for teaching and training animals.”

The plan includes a meet and greet room where people looking to adopt could get to know the animals, he said.

‘What things cost’

“Nothing in the design is extraordinary; nothing is out of the norm,” Cobb said. “This is what things cost.”

A new animal shelter in the small Connecticut town of Branford, population 28,000, for example, cost $4.8 million, nearly the same as the proposed Stamford project. A fundraising organization contributed $30,000, according to news reports.

It is 6,000 square feet, somewhat smaller than the 7,320-square-foot project proposed for Stamford, even though Stamford is significantly more populous with 136,000 people.

The Branford shelter, which also serves North Branford and Northford, adding about 20,000 people, has two meet and greet rooms, a medical room, cat quarantine room, and other features included in the Stamford design. 

Cobb said the finance board’s rejection of the design fee for the Stamford shelter is frustrating.

“Most of the board members don’t know what we need,” Cobb said. “They don’t ask us. They don’t come down here.”

If they did, they would see drab rooms and hallways crowded to capacity.

A dog who just gave birth is nursing her pups in a supply closet. She guards the door when people approach, stretching up to the window where a note warns, “Mom & Pups in Room.”

When dogs in the kennels raise a ruckus as visitors enter, a German shepherd nervously trots between the indoor and outdoor runs of his kennel.

“It’s not good for the kennels to face each other like they do,” Cobb said. “It creates aggression. The new design doesn’t have that.”

Data-driven design

The design was carefully considered for years by the Stamford Animal Shelter Alliance, said Nancy Freedman, president of the Alliance board.

There were different ideas over time, but the Alliance and members of the administration of former Mayor David Martin moved the new shelter to the back of the Magee Avenue property, Freedman said Tuesday.

“It’s a better layout and would allow the existing shelter to keep operating while the new one is being built,” Freedman said. “A lot of data drove the design, trying to fix the problems of the old building, like better storage and more parking. Our improvements are in line with other shelters and narrowly tailored to keep costs down.”

Freedman said she spoke to members of the Board of Finance after the vote, and she thinks the design fee will pass next time.

Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Simmons, said Tuesday the administration plans to resubmit the funding request.

“It looks like it will come back before the finance board in September,” Freedman said. “The city has allocated $4.4 million, plus half a million from Martin in 2014, so there is $4.9 million.”

The Alliance has raised $160,000, she said.

Promises, promises

“We’ve been fighting for a new shelter the whole time I’ve been here, which is 25 years,” Cobb said. “It’s been promised and promised, but then it never comes.” 

The animal control center was built in 1960, when such places were known as dog pounds, designed to hold wayward animals in cells.

The building took a beating in the 1980s, during a rabies epidemic that the state tackled by renaming dog wardens “animal control officers” and retraining them to handle wildlife. As wildlife calls spiked, Stamford was becoming a center of organized dog fighting, backyard breeding and resulting abuse.

The number of animals in the shelter often topped twice the number the building could hold. By the 1990s, the structure was in deep disrepair.

It did not have adequate hot water or a proper refrigerator to store the bodies of animals waiting to be sent for rabies testing. The concrete kennel floors were full of cracks that trapped urine and feces. The kennels were so damaged that dogs cut themselves on the broken caging. The kennel drains were too small and became repeatedly clogged with feces, creating a horrible stench. Cockroaches were so plentiful that animal control officers reported finding them floating in the dogs’ water bowls.

In 1998, at the insistence of citizen groups, the animal shelter was cleaned up and repaired. But it has been too small for the city’s needs for two generations.

The Animal Control Center now has four officers, one coordinator of volunteers, and one kennel maintenance worker, Cobb said. They are able to find homes for most dogs, and rarely euthanize – the last time was three years ago, when a dog that attacked children on two occasions had to be put down.

It’s a busy place, Cobb said.

“We get a lot more calls since all the apartments have been going up” in the South End, he said.

During the finance board meeting, the vice chair told her colleagues that she’d recently visited the shelter.

“It’s abysmal. It’s just terrible,” Rinaldi said. “This project is long overdue and should be supported.”

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.