Combined city-county animal shelter discussed

By Tammy Keith Published June 22, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Randy Higgins, Faulkner County justice of the peace for District 3, left, and Shona Osborne, director of the Conway Animal Welfare Unit, hold a dog and cat that are residents at the shelter. Faulkner County does not have a shelter, and a committee is looking into several options, including whether to either expand the city shelter or build a facility to share with the city.

Faulkner County Quorum Court member Randy Higgins of Greenbrier said the need for a county animal shelter has been talked about for years, but “it’s like anything else — it’s all about the money.”

Faulkner County has $845,000 in an account to build a shelter, proceeds from a voluntary property tax that have been collected since 2005.

“Where we’re coming up short right now, if we were to build the shelter today, we don’t have the operating funds,” Higgins said.

He said estimates are that it would take “a minimum” of $200,000 to $250,000 a year to operate the shelter, including salaries for an administrator, animal-control officers and a part-time veterinarian, as well as vehicles, fuel costs, etc.

“That seems to be the biggest obstacle right now, trying to figure out where that revenue stream would come from. So, we have an alternate plan,” he said.

Higgins is chairman of the Quorum Court’s Courts and Public Safety Committee that is overseeing the development of a Faulkner County animal shelter.

Higgins also serves on a separate “working” committee for the shelter issue with Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson; A.J. Gary, Conway police chief; David Hogue, the attorney for Faulkner County; Tom Anderson, county administrator; Shona Osborne, director of the Conway Animal Welfare Unit; and Faye Conville, an administrative assistant in the county judge’s office.

“We have been meeting just to see if it would be possible to work out a mutual-aid agreement between the city and county,” Higgins said. “The city shelter is at a maximum. They have needs, and we have needs.”

He said the county could possibly use its $845,000 to collaborate with the city to either expand the city shelter to house county animals or to build a shelter elsewhere.

Higgins said the county has property within the city limits, and a county-city shelter is one idea being tossed around.

He said it doesn’t make sense to duplicate services — having two directors, for example — if a county shelter is built in the city.

“I’ve heard over and over, ‘It’s not gonna work; it’s not gonna work.’ We have a county jail that houses city prisoners, and it works just fine,” he said.

Higgins said that about a year ago, he and committee members toured an animal shelter that is shared by Hot Springs and Garland County.

“We’ve been starting to develop a plan, identify the hurdles,” he said.

Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock made no bones about it: The county’s animal problem is out of control.

“We are consistently inundated with calls, to the point that we are not able to function and do our normal patrol duties as well as we would like to,” Shock said.

“I want to get it to where it’s not such a big issue with us — where we can call someone instead of having to spend tons and tons of man-hours dealing with animal issues and get back to what I believe law enforcement is all about: chasing down the bad guys,” he said.

Police Chief A.J. Gary said although the issue of a shelter has been talked about for years, the “conversation has really picked up and gotten back in gear in the discussion phase” within the past year.

“We’re putting some numbers together so the county knows what they’re looking at,” Gary said.” We’re trying to look at whether it’s feasible for us to do a combined animal-welfare unit.”

The chief said there is room to expand at the current Conway Animal Welfare Unit, which is at the Conway Sanitation Department off U.S. 64. He said if it weren’t for the shelter’s partnering with rescue organizations to adopt out the animals, the shelter would be over capacity.

“Shona and her group do a fantastic job,” Gary said.

He said if the county decides to build in the city, it doesn’t make sense to have separate shelters.

“I think, personally, any opportunity to combine our resources is good because it saves the taxpayers money,” he said.

Osborne said the two could work together, but it will take a lot of planning, and the pros and cons must be considered.

“It sounds simple — just add space; what’s the problem? But there’s so much more to consider. We want to be very careful that this is not a drop-off and destroy” shelter, Osborne said.

She estimated that the county’s animals “will far exceed ours for a number of years,” and she threw out the number 2,000. “There has to be a well-thought-out plan because you’re talking about over 2,000 animals, and I’m really shooting you a low number. And, I could be wrong; it could be 500 animals.

“I’m busting at the seams with my own animals.”

Summer is the highest owner-surrender time, she said, because people move and, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t take their pets.

The Conway animal shelter has room for 30 dogs.

“May was my 11th year. We have the same amount of pens, or kennels, as we did 10 years ago,” she said, and the population of Conway has grown by many thousand. “The sign said 43,000; now that sign says 58,000 or 59,000, and I don’t think that sign’s accurate,” she said.

There is an “explosion” in the cat room right now, she said, because cats breed in the winter. No cats are listed on the shelter’s website.

“They come in at such an alarming rate; I cannot even keep up with it. We have 20 kittens, maybe 25, in my cat room right now; that’s not counting the adults,” she said.

To keep from being a kill shelter, Osborne said, the staff photographs animals and posts the pictures to various websites. She hasn’t even had time to do that for the cats.

“Thank goodness for these rescue groups,” she said, which are able to find homes for many of the animals.

She said any combined shelter needs to be able to handle the influx of animals.

Osborne said she doesn’t think the people who donate their tax money for a county shelter want it to be a place that euthanizes animals regularly.

“That’s not the spirit of merger. That’s not what taxpayers gave their tax money to do,” she said.

Higgins said he knows people are frustrated.

“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I’m going to quit giving to that [voluntary tax] thing because you got all this money, and you haven’t done anything with it,’” he said.

Higgins said he tells them they’re right, that nothing has been done with the money because it is being saved for the right project.

He said groups often request funds from the account for various projects. For example, “They say, ‘If I just had $20,000 of that money, I could do spay and neuter,’” Higgins said. “I tell them, ‘We’re building it up for the shelter.’”

Gary said the Conway City Council would have to approve any joint venture, and there is not yet a plan to present to the council.

“It’s really going to be a matter of what is the best option, what is the least expensive and is going to work the best,” Gary said. “That’s kind of where we’re at right now.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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