No funds for shelter

County, concern citizens look for animal control solution

By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

The Blount County Animal Control Committee was to meet Wednesday night to discuss suggestions on how to provide animal control service in Blount County. Mayor Jerry Cunningham planned to make a suggestion of his own.

Cunningham said he was going to suggest at the meeting that the county buy an interest in the Maryville Animal Shelter as a way to fund animal control in the county.

Cunningham said he got the idea while thinking about all the other initiatives that the county and Alcoa and Maryville take part in together, such as Parks and Recreation, the landfill and the 911 Emergency Communications Center.

"I had this idea that the county buy into the fixed asset," he said of the Maryville Animal Shelter. "The variables would be the overhead. My suggestion is whatever we implement, that it only addresses cats and dogs."

Homeowners could deal with small wildlife such as snakes, skunks or raccoons on their own, he said.

"That would be a solution we could implement rather quickly and be a solution not just on a short-term basis, but on a long-term basis," he said. "Then we’ve got to get creative and figure out ways to buy into it. Do we do a bond issue, go into the contingency fund, or borrow it from the debt service fund? What do we do?"

Cunningham said recent hoax phone calls to his office are not making it easier to solve the animal control problem.

Blount County government’s contract with the city of Maryville for animal control services ended two weeks ago. Concerned citizens met on Jan. 4 at the Blount County Courthouse with the county commissions’ Animal Control Committee to talk about how to fix the problem.

Since then, animal advocates have asked that concerned citizens call the Blount County mayor’s office to voice their concerns about animal control.

Cunningham said while his office had fielded a few calls related to the matter, other hoax calls were wasting the county’s time.

"We’ve received a very limited amount of calls, very few. Some of the calls we’ve received have been hoaxes, and I hope those kinds of calls are not being orchestrated," Cunningham said. "They’re calling in, saying, ‘There’s a dead puppy in my neighbor’s yard,’ and we’ll go to check, and when we call back, it’s a false number. It has happened on more than one occasion."

Cunningham said the county government is working diligently to find a solution to the animal control problem. The situation began in mid- to late-2006 when the city of Maryville asked that the county double the $138,000 it was allocating to the Maryville Animal Shelter for the personnel there to continue servicing the county residents. The county commission opted to go to a month-to-month contract for the rest of the year until a solution could be found. When no solution was brokered, the service ended on Dec. 31.

"We’re diligently working on it," Cunningham said. "It is a situation nobody could have foreseen. Maryville (animal shelter’s) costs have gone up," he said.

Cunningham said the commission budgeted for animal control for half the year. "It’s kind of a mess the new commission and I inherited, and we’re trying to work though it. It’s as frustrating for us as it is for folks faced with animal dilemmas."

Cunningham said that while many concerned citizens would like to see a much larger scale animal shelter with multifaceted services than what Maryville Animal Shelter offers, the reality is the county can’t afford that type of facility on its own.

"We have to scale back our thinking and get realistic. Within the funding parameters the county operates in, there’s just no way to do something on the elaborate scale some want," he said. "We wish it could be. I’m probably as big an animal lover as anyone."

Cunningham said he and other county employees are working hard to fix the problem. "Please be patient with us," he said. "Certainly we appreciate all constructive input."

ArfNets is an animal rescue group that fosters stray animals until they can find permanent "forever" homes. ArfNets co-founder Rick Yeager has spoken to the commission several times in the past six months trying to find a solution to the animal control issue.

Yeager said no one in his group was placing hoax phone calls about animal control. "No one I deal with would do that," he said. "We’re getting phone calls referenced from the county mayor’s office and the county commission office."

According to Yeager, his group is one of several animal organizations to whom the county is referring animal-related calls or complaints.

Yeager said it is the commission’s and the mayor’s responsibility to take care of animal control, and that’s why he is encouraging individuals to call them. "Only if (citizens) step up and say they want animal control, then and only then will he wake up and provide services. We want them to be aware there’s a serious problem in Blount County."

Yeager said one way to raise funds to deal with animal control would be requiring animal owners in the county to license their animals. "I know it’s not something (the county commission) was looking into but I had hoped they would at least consider it," he said.

"We all know they’re going to have a hard time enforcing it. Even if 25 percent (of 80,000) follow it, that’s 20,000 animals. At $10 an animal, that’s $200,000 of income to county. That’s every year. There’s no reason we can’t make this happen in Blount County, and no reason it can not be successful."

Yeager has suggested that the county commission take $125,000 out of the $800,000 fund balance to pay for the immediate needs of animal control until a licensing ordinance can start generating funds. This would pay back the general
fund for the money borrowed for short -term animal control and future licensing revenues would pay for animal control.

"I don’t know what the deal is," Yeager said. "They’re not going in that direction. (The commission is) closing their eyes. I’m getting phone calls from people having issues with stray dogs. This is a huge, huge problem."

Commissioner Wendy Pitts Reeves said the answer isn’t as easy as dipping into the county’s shrinking fund balance to pay for short-term animal control expenses.

Reeves said she thinks the perception is that the commissioners don’t care and are making decisions about animal control regardless of animal welfare. "That’s not the case. (Commissioner) Steve Samples and I both have animals we got from a rescue.

"This isn’t about not taking care of animals. This is about taking care of the county."

Reeves said people should know that the commissioners are doing the job they were hired to do, "which is to look out for the county’s welfare, hold the line on spending where we need to and look for creative, long-term solutions that will truly move the county forward, rather than short-term emergency solutions."

The long-term solution is a public-private partnership, Reeves said "We pick up animals and hand them over to a private group who builds, maintains and runs an animal center which would cover adoptions, spay and neutering, public education and euthanasia," she said. "I think that could really work, and I also think there are many animal groups in town and all have a part in the solution."

Commissioner Steve Samples said the commission is looking at a long-term solution and what can be done in the short term. "The long-term situation is simply this, we’re looking for proposals from non-profit groups as to who might be able to provide long-term shelter and adoption facilities for the county, much like is being done in Knox, Loudon and Sevier counties," he said. "In the short-term we’re looking at an option that might allow us to work with one of the close by counties to provide a temporary solution."

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