Unicoi County Animal Shelter faces funding uncertainty

Brad Hicks • Oct 21, 2013 at 7:21 AM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Animal Shelter Director Jessica Blevins said despite “distractions” in recent months, the shelter is holding its own and operations continue as normal.

But, according to Blevins, an air of uncertainty still looms over the shelter as staff members and volunteers there await a decision on whether the facility will receive the remainder of the funding it is seeking from the town of Erwin.

“We’re still just in the waiting game,” Blevins said. “We’re not sure what January will bring.”

It was in June that the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to sever the town’s contribution to the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board’s budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Instead, Erwin officials opted to move forward with a plan to have the town operate its own shelter, as it did before the county animal hhelter opened its doors a little more than five years ago.

Per the interlocal agreement enacted in 2006 to establish the county shelter, each of the county’s three governmental entities — the town of Erwin, the town of Unicoi and the county itself — were to contribute equal annual funding to the Animal Welfare Board to go toward the shelter. Funding sought from each of the entities for the 2013-14 fiscal year was around $23,000.

Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley previously said the reasons for the town’s move to pull funding included the cost savings it would bring to the town’s taxpayers, expectations the Animal Welfare Board had for the town’s animal control officer that differed from responsibilities outlined in the interlocal agreement, and the Animal Welfare Board’s failure to provide the town of Erwin with a required audit. The town sent a notice of dissolution from the interlocal agreement to the town of Unicoi and the county following the board’s vote.

But officials subsequently began work to iron out the funding issue and, in July, the county’s three mayors met at the Unicoi Visitors Center to discuss possible solution. The proposal resulting from that meeting would have seen the government entering a contract with the Unicoi County Humane Society to have the organization run the county shelter, with each government contributing equal funding toward the contract. A board of control would have also been established, which would have been made up of the mayors and a member of the local Humane Society, to replace the Animal Welfare Board.

While no action was taken on the proposal, in late July the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted for the town to provide one-half, or $11,635, of the funding sought by the Animal Welfare Board in the new fiscal year. If an agreeable solution is reached by Jan. 1, the town will contribute the other half of the requested funding for the second half of the fiscal year.

With the loss of this funding, it is unlikely that the shelter would be able to continue to operate at its current capacity, Blevins said. She said failure to acquire the full amount could also result in the loss of kennel space and shelter staff members.

“It’s really hard to say,” Blevins said. “It’s just a guess at this point, but we do fear that we’ll have to either significantly reduce the amount of animals that we’re able to house or have to decrease manpower, which in turn would mean we’re able to care for less animals, so that is a fear we have, that it will come to that if we don’t receive funding in January.”

Blevins, who said she has not been contacted by local officials regarding a possible solution, said there are items that those at the shelter would like to do differently or improve upon, but she said shelter officials are hesitant to act on any plans since the funding issue lingers.

“There’s a lot of projects and things looking forward that we’re not able to do because we cannot have a long-term plan put in place for this shelter until we have a definite answer from the city of Erwin,” Blevins said.

The county’s mayors said Thursday that they are continuing to work toward a funding solution and have met since July to continue discussions. Hensley said three options resulted from the most recent meeting. The first would be to leave the things as they were before funding was cut, with the caveat that the Animal Welfare Board provide the town with an annual audit.

“This is one things that Erwin still requires,” Hensley said.

Another option, Hensley said, would be for the town of Erwin to contract with Unicoi County to have the county run the animal shelter. This option would not require the audit from the Animal Welfare Board, Hensley said.

The third option would be reworking the Animal Welfare Board to include the county’s three mayors. This option would require an audit, Hensley said. Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said this is the option he prefers.

“If the mayors are sincere about the success of the shelter, we’re going to pay attention to what’s happening,” he said.

Like Johnny Lynch, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he is optimistic a solution can be reached. He said the mayors will likely meet one more time to discuss possible solutions, and they hope to have a proposal to present to the Animal Welfare Board by November. Any changes to the interlocal agreement would require the approval of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, town of Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the Unicoi County Commission, Greg Lynch said.

“We think we have a solution, and we’ll present it at some point,” he said. “ ... I feel pretty confident we’re going to be able to reach an agreement and keep Erwin in the loop.”

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