The Blount County Animal Shelter is just weeks from completing the $1.8 million journey that transformed a vacant Eagleton field into a full-service animal shelter and adoption center.
With all that has happened with animal control in Blount County, however, changes are still being made and questions asked.
The major change is in how the day-to-day operations at the facility are managed. The question is about when or if $350,000 the county loaned out as seed money for the project will be repaid.
The management change took place on April 22, according to a letter to the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee from County Mayor Ed Mitchell. The executive director’s position was also eliminated.
The letter, dated April 14, praised the shelter supporters for creating a “showplace” for what a true animal center can be. Mitchell said that for the past three years, the shelter has been under the direction of the mayor’s office.
“With the completion and the beginning of a new era for the shelter, I think it is only fitting that those who have had the most to do with making this happen, the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee, take on the role of overseeing the operations of the Animal Shelter and Animal Control. This allows input and direction from those with the most ownership,” he said in the letter. “With this said, I would like to hand over the responsibility of the Animal Shelter operations to you effective April 22, 2011. Any changes will be from your direction.”
Mitchell said the advisory committee is composed of three Blount County Commission members - Peggy Lambert, Roy Gamble and Steve Samples - and three members from the Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation. “They’ve put so much into the building. I felt giving them ownership of the day-to-day operations was in the best interest of the shelter and the animals,” Mitchell said during an interview in his office. “Bills, any costs still come through the finance office. Any purchases come through this office.”
After taking over management on April 22, the Animal Shelter Advisory Committee took immediate steps to reduce costs. “One of the first orders of business was to eliminate the director’s position,” Mitchell said. “They’ll use a part-time employee - hopefully a volunteer - a veterinarian-trained individual to oversee it.”
The foundation president is Chris Protzman, vice president and general manager of Knoxville operations of Journal Broadcasting, Inc.
“Houston Murphy was shelter director through the construction process. With the Advisory Board overseeing operations, we knew there was a budget crisis with the county,” Protzman said. “To eliminate payroll spending, we eliminated the full-time position.”
Protzman said Lynn Burchfield will stay on as operations manager but the committee felt a part-time shelter manager would be better than a full-time director.
“We have number of volunteers who are playing that role. We definitely would like to look at a part-time shelter director long term who has veterinary experience,” he said. “We hope to attract a retired veterinarian or vet tech.
The 2010-11 budget for the animal shelter was $414,807 and was reduced to $255,195.50 as part of the mayor’s request departments cut their current budgets by 12 percent. The proposed animal shelter budget for the upcoming 2011-12 fiscal year is $361,527, which is 12 percent less than the original 2010-11 budget, according to Amy Cowden, assistant to the mayor.
In 2007, the county commission terminated their contract with Maryville City for providing animal control out of their facility on Home Avenue.
The foundation began raising money in January of 2007. Protzman said the foundation provided the county estimates on what they felt the investment would have to be to build the shelter. “We noted it would take four to five years to raise the funds,” he said. “At that time, the county had a temporary agreement with Loudon County, who couldn’t wait four years. The county mayor wanted to inject some inter-county loan money into the project as seed money.”
An inter-county loan is money the commission shifts from one fund to another.
“The mayor took out an inter-county loan for the project as seed money to get additional dollars generated so ground could be broken, and we could get something going on Phase I. We found county-owned property behind the Boys and Girls Club, and we broke ground and got started,” Protzman said.
Protzman said the county gave the land and the initial $350,000 seed money and the foundation covered the costs of architectural and design fees. They also raised another $100,000 of donated funds into the project as well as $500,000 in donated services to get it started.
Three-quarters of the way through the project, Protzman said they were still short as the recession kicked in and donations dried up and the county commission put in another $200,000. “The county stepped up and supported the shortfall to get Phase I operational, and it went operation in November of 2009,” he said.
Phase I was basic kennels, an office, a medical room and laundry and a utility room.
Protzman said when the interior build out is complete and opens in June, the foundation will have contributed gifts-in-kind and cash donations of approximately $1.3 million. “That was just our private donations,” he said. “The county will have contributed $550,000 - $350,000 in the inter-county loan and the $200,000 in additional support for a total cost of $1.8 million.
Because the shelter is an all-access facility, there is also a room where animals are put down after an allotted number of days.
“We are a municipal, all-access shelter. Animal control works out of this facility and no animal is turned away, unlike traditional, limited access or no-kill shelters that decline access to animals they don’t want,” he said.
Protzman said that as of the beginning of this year, adoption rates out of the shelter have been strong. “We’ve been able to accurately track our intake, and we’re nearing an 80 percent adoption rate on our dogs and that puts us in upper 1 percent of shelters in Tennessee,” he said.
Who pays the loan?
At the end of the April 21 Blount County commission meeting, Commissioner Tab Burkhalter asked about the status of the loan extended to help build the facility. Burkhalter said $350,000 was loaned to Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation in 2007 to build the shelter. “The loan became due in April of 2010, and it is still outstanding,” he said. “I’m asking that we research what we are going to do with this $350,000 note.”
Burkhalter said the foundation’s fundraising efforts have been focused on raising money to build the facility, not repay the county loan.
County Mayor Ed Mitchell said the loan was supposed to be paid for through revenues at the shelter and donations. “The revenue is not there, and we have no way of forcing the foundation to pay the $350,000. We have not been able to find any binding document that says Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation is responsible for paying back that $350,000,” he said. “It is money we need, and we could use, but we’ve talked with Chris Protzman with Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation. They’ve spent a lot of money funding this project, and there’s no binding contract.”
Protzman said the animal shelter is a county-owned facility and the foundation is a fundraising arm that helped raise money to build it. “Everything we generate in dollars and donations is given to the county. Any adoption that comes out from this facility, the county gets that money, not the foundation,” he said
Protzman said the county took out an intergovernmental loan for seed money. “The foundation has provided direct expenses. We have offset the cost of food and vaccinations, and we’ve provided direct gifts to the county to offset expenses of getting the center built. We have provided funds to offset budget and construction expense. Unlike many departments in the county, it can generate money.”
Protzman said the center already generates money through adoptions. “Every time an animal goes out the door, it is $85. If you want to increase revenues - increase adoptions,” he said. “We did it with 18 animals this weekend. That’s almost $1,800. You do one every other week and that is $3,000 generated every month.”
The foundation president said there are other ways of increasing revenues. “As we get into this, it is going to be a positive cash flow operation capable of generating revenues through adoptions, working with other municipalities who would pay fees to use the center and through obtaining grants focused on helping adoption centers,” he said.