Leading Astray: Scott Stringer’s Audit of NYC Animal Care and Control

images (1)City Comptroller Scott Stringer recently gave a press conference to present his office’s audit of New York City’s Animal Care and Control (NYCACC or just ACC). He did not hold back on the rhetoric, with lines like “(vaccine) storage practices that would make your stomach crawl” and “fiscal mismanagement”. Unfortunately the report he delivered that day doesn’t entirely support some of that rhetoric, some of which might be said to be exaggerated, and some of that speech shows either a basic lack of understanding of the relationship between ACC and the city’s Department of Health (DOH), which supervises the contract, or a willingness to use confusion for political gain. Although it exposed flaws (as all audits will), it’s likely the best Comptroller audit ACC has ever had.

First, Stringer’s press conference:

You may read the report in its entirety here:

Scott Stringer's 2015 NYCACC Audit

a2c98e84b7d65600cfe94b1f8d6c013f6cea4e3d1ebb6c561375353c1494ab56Really, the only serious matter of ACC deficiency in this entire report is the mishandling of controlled substances and the use of expired drugs, and that is indeed extremely troubling. However, the information in this audit is a year old or more – right after ACC had hired a new Medical Director and just before they restructured medical staff. After this information was uncovered, ACC added a Senior Veterinary Manager who is a vet, several Licensed Veterinary Technicians, quality control staff, and a Medical Practice Administrator. In response to the audit’s findings ACC pledged to immediately address the issues found and to implement better tracking systems for controlled substances and expired medications. They’ve revamped the entire system since the audit’s information gathering. You wouldn’t know this from the Comptroller’s speech, which presents this as if it were still the case today. It is not. This is a very serious matter and I hope the Comptroller’s office follows up on it.

There are some criticisms that, while valid, are not under ACC’s direct control. The audit criticizes them for not using an empty garage space in Manhattan: they are forbidden from doing so by the DOH, which owns the building. The audit points out the need for a backup generator in Manhattan – a capital improvement that would also be the domain of the DOH, as would the recommendation for an improved HVAC system for Brooklyn – a known issue for years. These things are represented in Stringer’s press conference as ACC flaws – they are not, they are DOH flaws (as is mostly correctly noted in the written report). Renovations were recently announced on the garage in Manhattan to turn it into an adoptions center and on Brooklyn’s HVAC system, and Stringer claims some of the credit for that in the video – but a misleading the public isn’t necessary for that; he could’ve started with a funding request. Scott Stringer either does not fully understand the relationship between ACC and the DOH or is willing to use the confusion for his own political gain.

Then we have the mountains out of molehills. He makes a lot of hay out of “(vacccine) storage practices that would make your skin crawl” because refrigerated vaccines were stored with employee lunches. This is not generally considered good practice for two reasons: temperature stability, with as few opens of the refrigerator door as possible, and vaccine contamination. It’s extremely difficult, however, to contaminate modern vaccines, which generally ship in very tightly sealed small glass vials in multiple layers of packaging. Similarly, temperature stability is less of an issue in an environment that uses so much product. In a small vet clinic that goes into the fridge 8-10 times per day for vaccines the additional opening by employees to access their lunches may make for a significant decline in temperature stability. In a place that uses a hundred vaccines per day the additional lunch openings aren’t likely to make a whole lot of difference. Although a separate vaccine fridge is recommended and ideal, sharing space with lunch is also pretty common. While not ideal practice, it not only doesn’t make my skin crawl, it’s typical enough to barely arouse my interest.

I did find interesting the vaccines discovered stored next to animal remains mentioned in the audit. At the time I thought the auditors had actually missed the point – vaccines need to be stored in a refrigerator, animal remains are generally stored in a freezer. I later discovered that this was an unique situation where an animal that needed a necropsy (the animal equivalent of an autopsy) was placed in a vaccine refrigerator temporarily for preservation until the procedure – freezing makes the necropsy much more difficult. It would be unusual to have a refrigerator on hand specifically for this purpose (although I’m sure they now do!), because it’s not something that comes up very often.

images (2)Stringer attempted to conflate these two situations at his press conference, claiming “(animal) remains next to people’s lunches and vice versa”. That would indeed be disgusting if it actually happened. His report does not document that. These were prepared remarks, not off the cuff, and I believe the Comptroller has a duty to represent the contents of his report accurately.

Stringer’s press conference claimed “fiscal mismanagement” mainly based on approximately $11,000 in credit card charges over one fiscal year that his office felt lacked sufficient documentation. The New York Post later obtained some of the charges. None of the items mentioned in the article seem particularly extravagant to me. Animal non-profit employees are not very well paid and occasionally buying lunch for your employees, or a gift card to say thank you to a volunteer can be totally legitimate expenses. As an employee of animal charities I have been on the giving and receiving ends of those thoughtful thank-yous; they are typical. $124 for parking expenses and $294 for parking tickets are a drop in the bucket for an org that employs more than 200 people and owns many vehicles; I pay a hell of a lot more than that yearly on the single car I own. For those of you who are not NYC residents, a simple parking error in Manhattan – missing a sign, or not seeing a hydrant – can easily run you more than $100. Another aspect of “fiscal mismanagement” was late fines and interest on accounts payable. While ACC did note some deficiencies in paying accounts on time, they also noted the expense – over half of the late fee/interest total – of having to maintain a line of credit because payments due to them from the city were so frequently late. If only there was a city office that could help with that! Even if every single item of the $11,000 in credit card expenses were fraudulent – which clearly, they are not – they would amount to less than 1% of the budget, significantly less than the average loss of retail operations. Although Stringer sought to make a point of this in his press conference, his report calls these issues minor, and deservedly so.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.13.23 PMFinally, we have both the silly and the harmful. Stringer felt the need to bring up in the press conference some peeling paint above a dog kennel in Staten Island. I will assume Mr. Stringer does not own a dog, because a few latex paint chips in one of my dogs’ food bowls would be the least significant non-food item they’ve consumed this week. Harmful is Stringer’s “overcrowding” criticism: when Manhattan runs out of space in their rooms, they house animals in rolling cage banks in the hallways. While that is not ideal practice, I would certainly rather see a live animal in a hallway cage than an animal killed for “lack of space” when housing in the hallway is an option. We all know that more shelters are needed, especially in the Bronx and Queens. Let’s not drive the euthanasia rate up to make a point – until more space exists, I would rather see an animal in a hallway than a garbage bag. Creative use of their limited space is, in fact, something ACC is doing RIGHT, not doing wrong.

Generally speaking, I’m a fan of Scott Stringer. I supported his mayoral run, I supported his Comptroller run, and I’ll probably support his future mayoral run(s), which he’s pretty transparently already running for. I believe that the long term plan he has proposed for ACC is the best chance for giving NYCACC a stable future: independence from the DOH (which has no mission to safeguard the welfare of animals), independence from the city, and the ability to be self-sustaining and raise their own funds are necessary so that shifting political winds – winds that right now happen to be the best we’ve yet seen, but can change in an instant – do not take us backwards. I can make the case for necessary improvements without having to resort to hyping peeling paint as a serious hazard or promoting lurid details about lunches and deceased animals that happen to be… well, let’s be generous and call them unproven. I find the Comptroller’s willingness to mislead a bit troubling. Stringer is a smart enough political operator to recognize that voters who care about animal issues are a significant bloc and also smart enough to recognize that they’re disappointed in the broken promises of Mayor de Blasio. While I do believe that he cares about this issue, I hope he someday makes the time in his busy schedule to visit ACC, which evidently he has not yet done. While they certainly have a way to go, had he visited in the years he’s been following this issue he might better be able to recognize their progress.

So keep an eye on the drugs, mmmkay? And other than that, congratulations. It’s a hell of a lot better than, say, this. And that deserves some recognition.

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