Erwin mayor says Animal Shelter deal could happen, calls for 'concessions'

Brad Hicks • Jul 12, 2013 at 10:27 PM

ERWIN — The town of Erwin has already notified Unicoi County’s other governmental entities of its intent to withdraw from the interlocal agreement enacted to start the Unicoi County Animal Shelter, and work needed for the town to move forward with its plan to operate its own shelter separate from the county shelter has begun.

Still, Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley said Thursday that these are preliminary steps, and that a resolution agreeable to all parties involved in the situation involving the Unicoi County Animal Shelter can be reached if concessions are made.

At Monday’s meeting of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, it was announced that the town of Erwin intended to move forward to operate its own animal shelter independent of the county shelter. Work on the town shelter began earlier this week, and has included the installation of equipment and cleaning, Hensley said.

“Right now, we’re just doing some housekeeping,” Hensley said.

Hensley said the town’s shelter, which is located on property adjacent to the county shelter, could be up and running next week, ready to take in animals. She said renovation work is being completed by Erwin employees, which will keep costs for the work lower.

“I don’t see it costing over $2,500, $3,000, at the most,” Hensley said.

On June 10, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted not to contribute to the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board’s budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year, opting instead to have the town operate its own shelter as it did before the county shelter opened in 2008. 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 — were to contribute equal annual funding to the Animal Welfare Board to go toward the shelter. Officials affiliating with the county shelter feel this loss of approximately $23,000 in funding could threaten future county shelter operations.

Hensley previously said the reasons for the move not only included the cost savings it would offer the town’s taxpayers, but that it was also done due to expectations the Animal Welfare Board had for the Erwin’s animal control differing from responsibilities spelled out in the interlocal agreement, as well as the Animal Welfare Board’s failure to provide the town with a required audit. The town sent its notice of dissolution from the interlocal agreement to the county and town of Unicoi last month.

However, Hensley said this decision is not yet final, as she will meet with Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch and town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch this morning to discuss the interlocal agreement in place and the possibility of developing a new one that would allow Erwin to remain involved with the county shelter. Hensley said the town of Erwin has in mind some changes that it wants to see made to the agreement.

“The town’s position is, first of all, we want an audit,” Hensley said. “We want someone to be accountable for the operations of the shelter. Secondly, we want a board of control to see that the accountability is there.”

Some, however, are concerned that the seven-kennel Erwin shelter began taking in animals before the facility was ready to do so. Unicoi County Animal Shelter volunteer and Appalachian Feral Cat Allies founder Judy King said she went to the Erwin shelter on Tuesday morning to retrieve items she previously donated to the county shelter after the Erwin board’s Monday announcement. There, King said she saw a puppy that she believed had been kept in the unrenovated shelter that lacked water, heat and air and electricity, overnight. She said the scene was “disturbing” and “distressful.”

“Puppies have a tendency to be active and run toward you,” King said. “It just sat there lifeless. ...The only words I could get out of my mouth were ‘Gary (Hatcher, Erwin’s Animal Control Officer), this isn’t right. This just isn’t right.’ It was heartbreaking.”

Unicoi County Animal Shelter Director Jessica Blevins said the puppy was brought to her facility Tuesday by Erwin Town Recorder Randy Trivette, who Blevins said asked if the dog could be kept at the county shelter since the Erwin facility was not ready to accept animals.

“A puppy was kept in that facility Monday until Tuesday about lunchtime, in a building that had no running water, no electricity, it didn’t have a bed,” Blevins said.

Hensley said that she has received word that the puppy was not kept in the Erwin shelter overnight, and she said no other animals have yet been placed in the facility. She also said electricity to the facility was turned on Tuesday.

“It is my understanding it did not stay overnight there,” Hensley said.

Should Erwin proceed with plans to break away from the county shelter, Blevins said the Unicoi County Animal Shelter is prepared to lean of the expected support of the county and town of Unicoi, adding that the county shelter would undertake fundraising efforts and other programs to recoup funding lost from Erwin.

“If everything does continue on this route and the city does operate independently of us and we remain a Unicoi and county shelter, we hope that we’ll still be able to help city cats and animals in need for a donation to compensate for the lack of funding we will not be receiving from the city of Erwin,” Blevins said.

Blevins said she hopes that a resolution that would allow animals from within Erwin’s limits to continue to be brought into the county shelter can be reached.

“If the (Erwin) facility remains as it is now, it’s putting this community back 20 years in terms of animal welfare and progression,” Blevins said.

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