Shelters for Every Borough of NYC: Not Like This

bad_escape_planIn 2011 New York City passed Local Law 59-2011, the result of a deal between some of the city’s major animal organizations (including the ASPCA, which lobbied very hard to pass the bill) and the city. The major effect of Local Law 59 was to relieve the city of its decade-old obligation to build full service city shelters in the Bronx and Queens in exchange for the promise (but not the written obligation) by the city to provide additional funding for existing facilities.

Now in 2015 the political winds have shifted, the shelter system is better funded (although that may be taken away at any time, since that was just a promise and not a law…), and the same group of people who negotiated the deal with the city to take away the obligation to build a full-service shelter in every borough are trying to pass a law that again restores that obligation, Intro 485.

This all sounds well and good, but it’s a bit simple. The law makes only one change, this statement: The department shall ensure that a full-service shelter is maintained in each borough of the city of New York.

That is a very popular idea. It is popular enough that most of the city’s animal organizations are for it, it is popular enough to have the majority of city council members as co-sponsors. It is an easy thing to be in favor of, with no political consequence: I voted to save puppies and kittens! Funding? Someone else’s problem! This is a massive unfunded mandate, an idea with no evident plan – and that makes it dangerous.

j-b-handelsman-no-but-i-can-give-you-an-unfunded-mandate-new-yorker-cartoonThere is nothing that I see that would prevent the City’s Department of Health from building and opening two more full-service shelters but keeping the budget for operations the same, crippling the ability of the entire system to operate. There is nothing I see that would prevent them from putting an adoption run or two in their existing borough “intake centers” and claiming compliance with the law. But what I see as most likely is an exact repeat of what happened last time: faced with a very weak law and knowing that when politicians are asked how they plan to finance their creation they will have no answer and, faced with providing actual funding, are likely to go skittering for the exits, the Department of Health will simply drag their feet and fail to comply with the law as they did for the decade after the first one was passed, secure in the knowledge that there will be no consequence for doing so.

It’s a good idea. It’s a great idea. But it’s been tried before and it didn’t work. Worse than that, some of the possible outcomes from an idea so vague and undefined have the potential to undo the steady progress we’ve recently been seeing from the New York City shelter system and take us back to the old days.

A politically popular idea is not enough; what is needed is a plan. This proposed law is not a plan, and it is potentially dangerous.

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