Evanston officials were naturally disappointed when their request for a grant from Cook County to replace or rehabilitate the City’s animal shelter came back with a much less than expected amount.
The City applied for $4.5 million in its original request in March to the County for the Housing Cook County Animals grant.
Officials were hoping to use the money toward a $6 million project for demolition and construction of the City’s shelter on its current site at 2310 Oakton St.
In exchange for the grant, the City was to enter a long-term contract with the County to shelter some of its impounded animals.
In May, officials received word the City would receive $2 million of its $4.5 million total request.
The rest of the $8 million was to go to the South Suburban Humane Society — a much larger shelter, where the County also expects to shelter a much larger number of animals found dumped or abandoned in forest preserves.
At first, officials reacted to the news as “they only awarded us $2 million,” acknowledged Lara Biggs, Evanston’s Bureau Chief of Capital Planning as well as the City’s Engineer, speaking about the process at the Oct. 5 City Council Human Services Committee meeting.
“And then I’m going to say, they awarded us $2 million,” said Ms. Biggs, lifting her tone, “which is actually a heck of a gift to our community.”
At the Oct. 5 meeting, Ms. Biggs sketched out several directions the City might take to get maximum use of the reduced funds.
1. The City could proceed with the construction of the new Evanston Animal Shelter building as proposed in the original grant application for $6 million, she said.
In that case, she said, both EASA, the Evanston Animal Shelter Association, the volunteer group the City contracts with to run the shelter on a day-to-day basis, as well as the City, would need to increase their financial commitments to the project.
2. The scope of the project could be reduced by renovating the existing building and adding an addition, she said. “The renovation and building expansion will not increase the capacity for housing animals – it will just be used to bring the building into code compliance and make some operational upgrades to save future costs.”
Under that model, officials said, the estimated cost of the renovation and expansion is estimated at $4.5 million.
At the Oct. 5 Human Services Committee meeting, Ms. Biggs and Vicky Pasenko, the executive director and co-founder of EASA, talked about how a new facility would serve the shelter’s changing role.
Ms. Biggs noted that the shelter under EASA is a no-kill, open admission shelter, “which means basically that they do accept animals from everywhere and everyone who brings them to the shelter.”
Yet, she said, the current building was not originally designed to be a no-kill shelter, and “it has really some pretty substantial capital needs.”
The building’s HVAC system is pretty old. Its cramped conditions do not allow “adoption rooms, training rooms – indoor animal enrichment just does not exist,” she said.
It also lacks other essentials such as a sprinkler system, and it is not ADA- (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible, she said.
Because of the cramped conditions, she said, “there is a lot of storage in the hallways, including cat cages, because there’s nowhere else to put them,” she said.
The Shelter’s Changing Role
Ms. Pasenko talked about some of the additional duties shelter volunteers have taken on since the onset of Covid, including helping pet owners feed their animals.
“Since the pandemic started in April, we have given away about 1,000 bags of food per week — 27,000 pounds of food since April. I don’t know if you can envision how much 27,000 pounds is. That’s a lot,” she told aldermen.
As a result, she said, the shelter, very social services-oriented even before the pandemic, has had to expand programs in that area.
“People have questions like, ‘What if I’m infected with COVID-19 and I’m choosing to care for my pet?’ ‘What if I’m hospitalized?’ ‘What if I’m evicted from my home?’ ‘What if the domestic violence I’m experiencing escalates, and I have to find a place for my pet?’ ‘What happens to my pets if I die?’ And ‘How can I pay for my cat, my pet’s medical care?’
“Those are all real-life questions that we that we have worked with people on,” she told aldermen. “It’s very important to them to be able to keep their past or know that their pet is safe.”
In discussion, Human Services Committee members acknowledged the reduced grant funds might limit what the City can take on in the project, but urged the shelter supporters to continue moving forward.
“We have to do something – you cannot continue to [operate] the shelter the way it is now,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, one-time owner of a pet supply store in Evanston and long one of the shelter’s biggest advocates.
A project smaller in scope “would be certainly better than nothing,” she said. “But I would like to see if there’s a way for us to reach $6 million [the original target].”
Ms. Biggs said the City’s next steps would include negotiating the final terms of a long term contract and the grant agreement with Cook County, “and we would simultaneously be working to hire a consultant.”
“And when we have those things sort of buttoned up,” she said, “the hope is to return to the City Council in February to get permission to move forward with the project.