City seeks community's help in providing services

City seeks community's help in providing services

Michele Ellson

When city leaders announced plans to contract Alameda’s animal shelter services out to another city to save money, animal lovers here quickly mobilized to stop them. But instead of fighting opponents of the outsourcing plan, the city decided to hand them the Alameda Animal Shelter’s keys.

Sixty-five days later the shelter’s new director, Mim Carlson, said she’s busy managing a staff of nine and training what she hopes will ultimately be more than a hundred volunteers – and finding ways to raise the nonprofit that now runs the shelter’s half of its $600,000 annual budget.

“People will just walk in and give us donations, and send us donations without being asked. It’s really great,” Carlson said. “And we need every penny that comes in the door.”

City Manager John Russo is touting the shelter partnership as a success story – and a glimpse into the future of how city services will be delivered in Alameda as budgets shrink and needs grow. He envisions public-private partnerships that would see the city building facilities and nonprofit community groups operating them.

Russo is talking to swimmers about operating a swim center the city hopes to build with the aid of $5 million that would be gleaned from a proposed half-cent sales tax hike, and also, to the group that runs the Alameda Museum, which could move into a renovated Carnegie Library if voters approve the tax. He has also been in talks with local youth sports leaders about managing some of the city’s fields.

“The concept here is to utilize the grassroots energy and devotion and the time and commitment of people who care about specific recreation services to get that energy all pulling in the same direction so the services can be provided, instead of what has happened – people looking at sports fields all end up fighting each other over a shrinking pie government is able to provide,” Russo said.

It’s an increasingly popular service delivery model, and one Russo seems personally determined to make work here. He tended bar for a February shelter fundraiser and his partner, Melissa Rosengard, is volunteering her expertise as a museum professional to efforts to move the Alameda Museum to the Carnegie, Russo said.

“We’re not saying to them, ‘Here you go, we’re throwing you in the water, now swim.’ We’re actually providing kickboards and life preservers,” Russo said.

Carlson said she’s getting a lot of support from the city and particularly the police department, which donated an ambulance it owned to the shelter.

“It’s an incredible partnership,” she said. "Any time we pick up the phone and call, whether it’s finance or the police or Mr. Russo’s office, people are so helpful to us.”

A number of cities are looking into the partnership model for sports complexes; the city of Morgan Hill handed over the keys to its sports complex to a local nonprofit group in 2010. Morgan Hill Youth Sports Alliance president Jeff Dixon credited a progressive recreation director for making the partnership happen.

“Municipalities can’t afford to maintain the facilities they own now. Building new ones is pretty much a long shot too,” Dixon said.

Alameda has partnered with other organizations before to provide services or manage city assets, with mixed results. And both Russo and Councilwoman Lena Tam, who championed a plan to give Alameda’s Boys & Girls Club $1 million in regional park bond money to help build its new facility on the West End, said such partnerships aren’t right all the time. For example, Tam said city leaders had looked at outsourcing ambulance services to the contractor that now handles them for Alameda County, but were told they couldn't get the same services for less.

“I don’t know where else it will come up. But it will come up as it makes sense to come up,” Russo said. “When you get out of the realm of public safety, the various ways things can be handled are infinite.”

Tam said the money the city gave to the Boys & Girls Club was “a great deal for the city” because it offered access to an $8 million facility the city couldn’t have built on its own. Other examples of where local groups have successfully stepped in to operate or improve city assets, Tam said, include city-owned Lincoln and Franklin park pools, which have long been managed by a nonprofit, and Mastick Senior Center, whose lobby was redone using money collected by volunteers.

“Because we are seeing a decline in revenue, we’re going to have to look at those kind of opportunities to provide those services the community wants to keep in Alameda,” Tam said.

One partnership the city has struggled with, though, is the one it set up with the Alameda Museum to manage Meyers House, which was bequeathed to the city for use as a museum and park. The trust established to maintain the house, which is only open to the public for a half day a month, doesn’t offer enough cash to cover those costs – which include a new roof that’s been talked about for several years.

“Meyers House is one of the biggest challenges. We don’t as a city have the funding (to maintain it),” Tam acknowledged. “The Museum obviously doesn’t have the funding and the volunteer corps.”

Efforts to put youth sports leaders in charge of fields and a hoped-for sports complex could pose another challenge, though one prominent youth sports leader said he’s hopeful the challenge can be met.

“There has to be a way as adults we can get in a room, and figure out how to divvy up money in a way that’s good for kids,” Griff Neal, president of the Alameda Youth Sports Coalition, said.

Youth sports leaders had formed the coalition to speak with one voice on their issues and needs, but a proposal to swap the Mif Albright golf course to a developer who pledged to help pay for fields on land he’d offered in trade caused a rift in the group. Neal said the sales tax proposal could provide a mechanism for bringing everyone back together.

Neal, who said the group had originally talked about forming a public benefit corporation a year ago, said it has a number of additional issues to work through, including whether to partner with local businesses providing similar services or with sports teams off-Island that also need facilities and might be willing to pay to build them. And the new group needs to form a governance structure that suits the coalition’s many different sports groups, which are now managed in different ways.

“I think by and large the boards of the assorted organizations want to find a way to make this work,” Neal said.

Russo said he thinks offering partnerships in the face of the city's continuing budget challenges will drive consensus because their alternative is an increasingly unattractive status quo.

“If they want more, they all have an incentive to get more by working together. If they don’t – the city’s not going to invest unless there’s agreement,” he said.

Russo acknowledged that he anticipates “setbacks” in the city’s partnership efforts, but said the city has little to lose in pursuing them.

“Say one of these groups falls apart, and they can’t produce the service anymore. The city still owns the asset,” he said. “We’re no worse off than we were before.”

But the animal shelter’s Carlson, for one, is a fan of the city’s new way of doing business.

“It is a good story. And I think there will be a lot more of these public private partnerships not just in Alameda, but I’m hearing from other cities as well,” Carlson said. “I think this is the beginning of a real good trend.”