The shelter: It should be about the animals, not the board

October 8, 2018

Few institutions are as beloved in this city as the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society. That’s why it was troubling to learn that in recent years, the shelter has reported significant operating losses and that its board made decisions benefiting insiders, whether board members or a former shelter boss.

The work the shelter does, caring for neglected and discarded cats and dogs, is too essential to risk by not running the place as ethically and transparently as possible. Reporter Thom Cole’s series of stories on shelter operations should give supporters cause for concern, as well as reason for hope.

Shelter officials have reacted defensively, unfortunately, saying such murky dealings are in the past — and that many of the questions raised in the stories are non-issues. They point out, too, that finances are on the upswing. What is missing in these strident defenses, though, is a justification for what took place.

Here’s what Cole found out: In 2012, the shelter had plenty of money, with $9.6 million in investments and nearly $1.5 million in cash. By 2017, the investments had declined to $5.7 million and the shelter owed $1.2 million on a line of credit at the end of that year. In all, the shelter reported losses totaling $7.1 million from 2014 to 2017.

Fortunately for the animals served, shelter leaders say they are turning the ship around. Shelter Executive Director Jennifer Steketee says the shelter should break even this year, and operating losses dropped to $1.2 million in 2017, down from $2.3 million in 2016 and $2.5 million in 2015.

That improved financial news doesn’t erase the past and the troubling actions of previous shelter boards.

For example, the board decided to buy a house for then-Executive Director Mary Martin to live in rent-free (part of her compensation, officials say). Later, the board sold Martin the property for less than its purchase price ($545,000 vs. $500,000) and even loaned her $50,000 with an unsecured note to help her buy the place. Money for the purchase came from a multimillion-dollar bequest, the same legacy that has covered operating losses.

Then there was a Canyon Road estate left to the shelter, a piece of which was transferred in 2012 to former longtime shelter board President Roddey Burdine. He then forgave a $300,000 balance on a loan made to the shelter when it was pressed for cash. The transfer was made without an appraisal, and the parcel was not offered for public sale. Who knows whether the shelter could have obtained more for the property, repaying Burdine and putting excess dollars in the bank? By failing to sell the parcel in an open, transparent manner, the transaction does not pass the smell test.

Another move gave work to board member Trey Jordan. He was hired as the architect for the shelter’s veterinary hospital and animal-rehabilitation center, completed in 2013 and 2015. The architect lacked experience in designing medical facilities but offered to work at a reduced charge; in fact, he might have saved the shelter money. However, for an operation with the shelter’s importance and heft in the community, such projects should go out to bid, if only to satisfy the kinds of questions that eventually aroused the interest — and ultimately, led to the resignations — of two former board members. Anything less smacks of insider dealings.

Shelter supporters maintain these actions are in the past and bristle that they were reported in the first place. Still, the words of former board member Michele Cook’s resignation letter are worth remembering: “I resign with sadness because I have seen first-hand what tremendous and arduous work our frontline staff does to help needy animals on a daily basis. That said, this board has failed to match the level of integrity shown by the staff, and so at this time, I feel I cannot go out and raise money for the organization with a clear conscience.”

Yes, the shelter is a nonprofit (although one that does receive funding from both the city and county). But in reality, it’s much more than that; it’s a public trust.

To remain one, the shelter board must avoid the kinds of wink-and-nod practices that led to two members’ resignations. New director Steketee doesn’t have the rent-free deal of her predecessor, and that’s progress. So is the improving financial picture.

The board must operate for the good of the animals, not its members or an executive director. Keep that in mind, and this beloved institution will continue its worthy mission, caring for the animals who deserve our love and support.

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