Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham proposes pet license fee to help fund animal shelter

By Joel Davis  of The Daily Times Staff
The Blount County Animal Center should be in operation by the second week in October, but County Mayor Jerry Cunningham is asking the public for a little more help.

Loudon County has been accepting Blount’s stray animals at the Loudon County Animal Shelter for $4,000 a month. The arrangement was set to expire on June 30, but the Loudon County Commission approved a final extension of the arrangement at its August meeting.

“We’ve got a punch list of things that we need the public’s help with if they’re willing,” Cunningham said. “Some of them are little things. Some of them are big things. ... We have a very, very limited budget. We need help.”

The Mayor’s Office is accepting the donation of items needed during the day-to-day operation of the shelter — from toilet paper to cat food, surgical masks to trash cans. Anyone interested in helping out with the shelter’s needs can call 273-5700.

The Blount County Animal Center is set to open in three phases. Phase I consists of operational kennels and limited office space. The first phase will be bare bones. Phase II will be the adoption center.

“We want it to be safe and we want it to be humane,” Cunningham said.

With the opening of the facility finally in sight, Cunningham has been thinking about the operational budget for the 9,000-square-foot facility.

“The utility expenses on something this size are going to be astronomical,” Cunningham said. “... I’ve been scared from the onset that we’re not going to have enough money to operate the shelter like it should be operated.”

$2 license fee

Cunningham said he believes the county should enact a small license fee for pets that receive rabies shots to help fund operations, but he also believes there would be some community opposition.

“You’ll have the naysayers who stand up against a $2 license fee,” he said.

Commission Chairman Steve Samples said the commission would at least consider the idea.

“Certainly, I think the commission would be willing to consider it,” he said. “There has been some talk of it being a voluntary license fee. The commission will look at the entire issue and try to determine what is best for the county.”

The animal center will be a kill shelter, but Cunningham hopes that the use of euthanasia can be minimized.

“We are trying to get as many animals out of there alive and adopted as we can,” he said. “... It’s a fact of life we’re going to have to do it, but the more we work to limit that, the better everyone will feel.”

For 2009-2010, the budget for animal control is $137,000 with $80,000 to $90,000 being spent on salaries and benefits for a full-time office manager and a full-time animal control officer. Cunningham recently hired a part time person to help out, too.

“We’ve got a huge, huge building,” Cunningham said. “It’s going to be staffed with 2½ people. ... Staffing it is the problem.”

Community service help

To help with staffing needs, Cunningham said he is working with local judges to use people sentenced to community service as workers in the animal center.

“The judges are being extremely cooperative,” Cunningham said.

The Smoky Mountain Animal Care Foundation has been helping raise funds for the construction of the shelter. The estimated cost to build the facility as designed is $1.6 million. Private monetary and gift-in-kind donations to SMACF have totaled $520,000 to date. This is in addition to the amount allocated to the project to date by Blount County.

“It’s nobody’s fault that the fundraising stalled out,” Cunningham said. “It’s just the economy. The foundation has done a wonderful job.”

Don and Carol Story of Maryville recently donated $50,000 toward construction of Phase II of the Blount County Animal Center in honor of their past dogs, “Buffy” and “Dixie,” and current family dog “Lacey.”

The County Commission previously appropriated $430,000, which included $80,000 raised by SMACF and $350,000 in seed money that the commission authorized in 2007 that allowed the core of the facility to be built.

On July 16, the commission voted unanimously to spend $197,000 to finish out Phase I of the animal shelter construction. The funding includes $82,000 for heating and air conditioning and $16,820 for electrical work to make the shelter operational.

SMACF is estimating it will cost $490,000 to build the Phase II adoption center for the shelter.

The shelter is being built behind the Boys and Girls Club, 241 Currie Ave, in Maryville.