The future of PAWS in Montclair is an on-going issue that has yet to be resolved. PAWS animal shelter used to receive $54,000 a year from Montclair Township, under contract to provide animal control services. In the spring of 2006, the two parties were unable to come to an agreement over compensation. Their service contract was awarded to Clifton, financial support from the town ended, and the business relationship took a drastic turn.
The Montclair Times reported that the organization is now dipping into their savings to pay $6,270 in monthly rent to the town. PAWS manager Sarah Githens says their annual rent has jumped from $16,575 to $75,240.
What happened since last Spring, when negotiations were apparently moving in a positive direction? Although the Board of Directors told Baristanet they were not willing to speak publicly about the current relationship, it’s clear from tips and comments we’ve received that the PAWS community is feeling stressed. Hanging in the financial balance is their sustainability – paying the current rent could potentially force the cash-strapped PAWS to shut down within 18 months, say its supporters.
We went to Town manager, Joe Hartnett, for some answers.
Mr. Hartnett prefaced his response: “this started because PAWS had a signed contract with the township and the township was indeed paying money to them, but they reneged on their contract and abdicated their agreement.” Hartnett writes:
Through negotiations, the Township attempted to establish an alternate arrangement with PAWS that would allow them to stay in the building and be involved as a partner with the Township in running the animal shelter. In our opinion, this would have been an ideal solution and it is one that is working very well elsewhere both in helping the volunteer organizations and the municipality. But PAWS has absolutely and unconditionally refused to enter into any such partnership arrangement and has maintained that it must have 100% control of the building as its privately-run shelter.
At this point, we are left with a straight business arrangement. The question then becomes √¢‚Ç¨‚Äú can the Township give away a Township asset at a rate less than market rate to PAWS because it is a √¢‚Ç¨≈ìgood group that does good things?√¢‚Ç¨¬ù The problem with this logic is, why should we give this property to PAWS at a reduced rate as opposed to the Red Cross or the Heart Association or the Mental Health Association or a shelter for homeless people, etc. etc. Why does PAWS deserve a break and not some other worthy or more worthy or more needy group?
The answer, of course, is that the Township does not have the right to give away Township monies or assets to charitable or civic groups or to favor one group over another and the law does not permit this. There are laws that provide that when Township assets are given over to private organizations it must be done at prevailing market conditions. To arrive at what the market rent should be, the Township hired a certified appraiser who has given his independent judgment as to what the fair market rent should be. We are certainly more than willing to work with PAWS to get additional appraisals from someone they approve of, at our expense, if anyone feels this appraisal was not fair.
Finally, I would like to add that I and other Township officials are very concerned with animal welfare and that animal control services be performed in a humane manner. We remain committed to that objective, as proven by our hiring of a professional animal control officer…and we remain committed to finding the best possible solution in the overall public interest.
Addendum to Mr. Hartnett’s response:
There is so much misinformation being circulated and lack of understanding about the PAWS situation that it is difficult to know where to start to explain things. I will do my best.
Let√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s start with the concept of how and why Township monies and assets might he given to an outside organization. Basically there are two conditions for this; 1, where a specific State law allows for it; or, 2, where an organization is performing a service for a municipality. An example of #1 would be a First Aid Squad, because State law specifically provides for municipalities to be able to support first aid squads. The best example of #2 would be PAWS itself, which had a contract with the Township to provide improvements and services and as part of that contract paid reduced rent of $1 a year.
As you know, the current situation was caused not by the Township but by PAWS resigning from the aforesaid contract. They quit performing services that they were supposed to be performing for the Township and defaulted on their lease agreement.
As Township Manager, I have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of Montclair to safeguard their monies, their assets, and their property, and one of the major reasons I was brought here was to make sure that this Township is managed properly. Accordingly, we will be continuing to review all of the Township√¢‚Ç¨‚Ñ¢s business arrangements to try to bring them into line and make sure they are done in a proper, legal, and businesslike manner.
So, what is the best solution? We invite the Board members of PAWS to respond.