When the Baw Baw Council was forced in 2008 by local government regulations to publish its animal management data in their Domestic Animal Management Plan, the details were grim. That is, practically all cats were killed (158 of 168 intakes) While nearly three times as many unclaimed dogs were killed (92), than rehomed (29).
Baw Baw Shire also had an ageing pound facility, built in 1991 which lacked isolation facilities and had un-sterilisable flooring which no longer met government regulations for health or welfare for animals. Since the pound no longer met the Victorian Government’s Code of Practice for the Operation of Shelters and Pounds, Baw Baw Shire was forced to seek a new animal pound location.
Council impounds less than 500 pets a year. Or one to two pets a day. About half of the pets get reclaimed by owners so the pound would have, maybe, one pet a day coming in that needs care. The pet owners of Baw Baw needed a small, comfortable facility that could keep their pets safe. As promised by council in the April 2017 Infrastructure Plan;
New Animal Pound - Construction of new facility to accommodate 20 dog and 10 cat pens - includes furnishing and equipment, access, carpark, septic system, water tanks, fencing etc - budget $504,000
A 30 pen pound should not have been be a big ask. Council started community consultation lasting a month in January 2016, to try and find a new pound location and during these consultations identified three suitable sites;
- $1.3 million for an upgrade and rebuild of the current Galloway St facility
- $930,000 for a new facility on council land at Lardner, or
- $770,000 for council land in Normanby
Then, in August 2016 with seemingly no consultation with the community at all about the site, Baw Baw Shire Council purchased Utopia Pet Lodge,
a 2.023 hectare first class pet boarding facility located in Longwarry. The purchase price for the business, land and improvements totalled $1.2 million.
Pet lovers in the community were shocked, but happy that pound pets weren't only going to get a new pound, but that it would be a luxury facility.
But it quickly became clear council had no intention of putting pound animals into its new $1.2 million dollar rate-payer funded pet boarding facility, purchased with the community's pound money, but intended to keep and run a for-profit pet boarding business using council staff.
Council will own the business name and continue to operate the business as Utopia Pet Lodge.
Initially Council will directly manage the facility and will continue to investigate the most appropriate management structure for the successful operation of the business. Income received from the business will provide a welcome additional revenue stream to Council.
Mayor of Baw Baw Shire Councillor Joe Gauci said this strategic investment provides Council with an innovative approach to co-locate a completely separate animal pound on the property.
Council’s pound operation and the impounded animals in its care will be situated in separate locations on site to that of the pet accommodation facilities.
And ten months after the property was purchased, the community's stray animals were still going to the shitbox, non-compliant, horror pound.
I’ve have never seen such a disgusting building holding live animals, no windows, no ventilation, no human contact except once a day when they are fed apparently, the smell was overwhelming. I wouldn’t want another dog to spend one day in that filth, they can’t see out anywhere, they leap continually to try and see any form of life through the wire at the top of steel doors, no blankets, no stimulation of any form, it was by far the worst facility holding dogs that I have ever seen. You should be ashamed of that lesser block building… disgusting shire of Baw Baw you should be ashamed." - Comment from a resident on the Baw Baw Shire Facebook page
While the costs to build the pound continued to skyrocket.
Coupled with the purchase price of the Longwarry North property, the total costs involved for the new pound and investment into a privately ran pet accommodation business could reach $1.7 million.
Baw Baw Shite Council is expected to make a decision on the new pound next week. But an allocation in next year's draft budget indicates that the costs involved will be three times what council initially thought.
... When council announced its decision to purchase the $1.2 million Utopia Pet Lodge site in August last year, it was estimated an additional $150,000 would be needed to upgrade facilities for a pound.
Council is now expecting the works will cost $500,000 - all of which it says will be funded through saving in operational and capital works within the current year's budget.
Costs previously considered by council for three new pound options were considerably lower.
But even as Council was considering whether or not to build a pound on the site of the boarding kennel, the boarding kennel business was quickly going down the gurgler. Despite claiming that the boutique pet boarding facility would help pound pets by contributing financially to their care a council report revealed...
... Utopia is “operating at a loss for the year to date.”
When the local media asked as to how this could possibly be the case; that not only did the community not have a animal pound for its $1.2 million dollar investment, but neither did it have a working boarding kennel, no information was forthcoming.
(The Gazette) has made several requests for the business plan on which the council based its decision to buy the commercial facility. These requests have been denied. No details of the business plan or due diligence supporting the purchase have been made public.
Mayor Cr Gauci stated "the facility was not making money and was not likely to make money" and that operating losses amounted to $59,000 for the year.
In September 2017 - largely due to enormous public anger that homeless pets still weren't being cared for appropriately - the Utopia pet boarding kennel was closed, and in October the facility was opened as an animal pound.
Council works were as follows:
Broadly the modification works are proposed to be completed in two stages:
1. Conversion of 8 existing rear dog enclosures into 8 compliant dog enclosures
2. Conversion of rear dog enclosures to two exercise yards
3. Retrofit Cat Area with 24 new enclosures
4. Retrofit front existing administration area with dividing wall to prevent public access
5. Estimated cost $90,000
6. Works to be completed by mid-September (2017) under the Council’s Building Services Panel Contract.
Stage two improvements were estimated to cost about $230,000 and would include another 22 dog and four cat enclosures, dog and cat isolation areas, a dog exercise yard, improved security and a solar power system.
... and Baw Baw Shire Council is still trying to work out what to do at the pound.
As the clock ticked towards the third anniversary of its decision to buy and operate the Utopia Pet Lodge at Longwarry North and co-locate a new municipal animal pound Baw Baw Shire will now develop a master plan for the property's use.
And council is still trying to fend off questions about the whole shit-show.
Former owners of Utopia Pet Lodge at Longwarry North, now used as Baw Baw Shire’s municipal pound, have strongly rejected statements by council that they approached council to buy the property.
“We never approached the council,” Glenn Cunningham told The Gazette last week.
Mr Cunningham and his wife Suzanne operated the pet lodge that temporarily housed pet cats and dogs for more than 12 years.
It was only in its response last October to The Gazette’s Freedom of Information requests that council declared it had been approached by the former owners about the possibility of council buying it.
The Gazette had unsuccessfully asked for two years how the 2.02 hectare Utopia property became an option to three other sites, all council owned, for which draft plans and cost estimates had been prepared and released for public consultation.
If you're a resident of Baw Baw council, or a concern animal lover in VIC, then please start asking the Mayor what the hold up is.