FORT SMITH -- The Sebastian County Quorum Court declined to give a local animal rescue additional money next year pending further discussion.
Justices of the Peace reviewed the county's proposed budget for 2023 at its meeting Tuesday . The County Judge's Office will draft the final budget and an ordinance adopting the budget for the Quorum Court to approve at its Dec. 20 meeting.
The Quorum Court's vote included a plan to reduce and defer requests for county general fund money to keep expenses from exceeding what the county estimates will be available next year.
Justices of the peace rejected a request from the Artemis Project, a no-kill animal rescue group south of Hackett and one of several nonprofit organizations the county financially supports each year.
The Artemis Project requested $125,000 for 2023, more than double the $60,000 the county gave it for this year, according to county budget documents. The budget would give the organization $60,000 in 2023.
Cindy Scott, director of the Artemis Project, said Wednesday her rescue needs more support to continue accommodating the animals and requests it receives. The Artemis Project has taken in more than 6,000 animals since it began in 2019.
"There's no denying that we have a huge pet overpopulation in this area, and we are basically the only rescue without a city contract that takes animals from the entire Sebastian County," Scott said. "We're volunteer-operated, and we run strictly on donations and what few grants we get."
Scott has said the Artemis Project provides services to cats, dogs and other animals. This includes medical care and finding homes for animals it takes in, with the rescue sometimes transporting animals to other parts of the country.
The organization's request to the county said the additional money would go to monthly operational expenses, which have been increasing, as well as new payroll for extra help. It would also pay for certain one-time expenditures, such as property improvements and equipment needs.
Linda Murry, justice of the peace for District 11, made a motion to allocate $100,000 to the Artemis Project. She said the group does amazing work throughout the county concerning animals.
"I'm just a citizen," Murry said after the meeting. "I don't have anything to do with them. I just appreciate what they do so much."
However, Lorrie Runion, District 13's justice of the peace, asked if a possible commitment from the Artemis Project to help animal control officers with the Sheriff's Office could be part of the conversation.
"If we're going to give them money, I would like to see that we also have a place to take these animals that are picked up in the county that need to be contained," Runion said.
Sheriff Hobe Runion, Lorrie Runion's husband, said the Sheriff's Office has had issues with the Artemis Project not taking its animals at times.
"I have a problem with us giving them this kind of money, which is more than we ever spent for our entire animal control budget, and I can't take an animal there a lot of times," Hobe Runion said. "That's been a sticking point for 18 months. That's been something that's been ongoing."
Hobe Runion said the Sheriff's Office used to have a contract with the Hope Humane Society, a nonprofit animal shelter and pound in Fort Smith, through which the organization would take its animals in exchange for a certain amount of money each year. The Hope Humane Society closed in mid-2019. The city of Lavaca has kennels it allows the Sheriff's Office to use to put animals as space allows.
Runion told the Quorum Court his department doesn't take many animals, describing five per month as historically "a big number." The Sheriff's Office has one animal control officer.
Murry said the Artemis Project's finances limit what it can maintain on its property. The rescue is also limited by the number of foster homes it has available for animals.
Murry withdrew her motion after James Butler, District 4 justice of the peace, suggested the county speak with the Artemis Project about a possible agreement to take county animals before allocating additional money.
Scott said as far as she knew, the Artemis Project has always helped with every animal the Sheriff's Office's current animal control officer brought to their attention. However, she conceded a request could have gotten lost in the messages the rescue receives every day if it had been made by someone else from the county or in an indirect manner, such as through the rescue's Facebook page.
Scott said she would be willing to discuss an agreement with the county. She noted the rescue would need an area dedicated to the county if it had a contract with the county requiring it to have open kennels.
"As far as the facility goes, we're always at maximum capacity," Scott said. "If we were to allot kennels specifically for just animal control to bring in, then it would be more like a contract situation where the building that they've provided would be included as part of their resources and we would only house animals they brought in in there so they would always know what's available."
She said the Artemis Project doesn't have contracts to take animals with any cities or counties in the River Valley.
The county's plan to balance the 2023 budget similarly reduced funding requests from the Sebastian County Fair Association, Buckner Park and the South Sebastian County Historical Society, as well as the Sebastian Retired Citizens Association, according to budget documents.
The Artemis Project had slightly less than 300 animals in its system as of about 3 p.m. Wednesday between those held at its facility and in foster homes.
Source: Cindy Scott, director of the Artemis Project