New animal shelter faces budget deficit

08/13/2013 2:19 PM

08/13/2013 2:20 PM

With rugged timber rafters and an idyllic setting off Missouri 78, Jackson County’s newest animal shelter might easily be mistaken for a north woods lodge. The lobby up front is airy and spacious, much as a hotel’s would be.

But venture farther behind the front desk and a central truth of the new Great Plans SPCA Independence campus is revealed.

Cats. Cats in the intake area. Cats lounging in sunbeams and on climbing structures. One whole room is dedicated to nurse 30 cats taken from a hoarder back to health.

Three hundred cats in all, on one recent July day at the shelter in Independence.

“I’ve never seen as many cats in my entire career in animal welfare,” said Courtney Thomas, president and CEO of Great Plains.

Open only since April, the shelter has been resoundingly successful in attracting abandoned pets and strays of all types. But that success has quickly resulted in the center’s first crisis — a budget shortfall that will need immediate fixes.

The nature of those fixes has become the subject of much correspondence between the city of Independence and Jackson County of late. County officials have asked the city to pay its quarterly installment of operating expenses early to deal with the influx of pets. And they’ve also floated the idea that, given the number of animals coming in, Independence should consider increasing the amount it pays.

So far, the city has rejected those ideas.

The problem is that pet intake has been so much higher than expected, said Thomas.

Last year, the Independence shelter took in 2,926 animals. Already this year, the new center is on track to more than double that. So far, just over 1,800 animals have come in from Independence residents and animal control, she said.

At about 28,000 square feet, the new shelter is the second largest in the county, said Thomas. The administrative offices are at the Great Plains campus in Merriam, so the entire building is devoted to the animals and their needs. There is a surgery area for spaying, neutering and other health issues, separate intake and adoption areas, indoor and outdoor play pens and gigantic washing machines that run pretty much all day.

Any brand-new shelter can expect a quick spike in the number of animals coming in the door, Thomas said. The national trend is for a 30 percent increase during the first three or four months a shelter is open, she said, because people often feel better about relinquishing their pets or strays to a nicer place with more staff.

All those animals coming in prove the area needed a new shelter, as well as some spay and neutering outreach programs, she said.

But success is a double-edged sword. Great Plains has scrambled to find a way to get all those pets adopted, resorting to fee waivers and “adopt-one-get-one-free” deals. That has reduced income just when the shelter needs it most.

The result: A budget shortfall that will need immediate attention. The center will need to close a $735,000 gap between what it takes in from the city, county and fees and what it needs to meet its $1.3 million yearly budget.

The question now is, will either the county or the city of Independence be willing to close that gap with more taxpayer money?

The early answer appears to be no.

A difficult birth

The new shelter is the product of a sometimes-contentious arrangement between Jackson County and the city of Independence.

In 2009, the county agreed to build the shelter on Independence-owned land. The new Regional Animal Shelter would accept animals from Independence and unincorporated Jackson County, replacing the Independence Animal Control building. That building was converted into space for a police K-9 unit and evidence storage.

The agreement called for the county to build the $5 million facility and pay utilities, and the city to pay operating expenses.

However, things hit a snag last summer when officials in the city and county could not agree on how the shelter would be operated and at what cost. Jackson County Legislator Dennis Waits pushed for Great Plains to run the shelter, but Independence balked, saying it did not want to pay the additional cost, which would have been more than double what it would pay to run the shelter with its own staff.

In the end, Waits won the contract for Great Plains as subcontractor to the county. Independence pays operating costs at about $435,000, and the county pays utilities. The difference is supposed to be made up in adoption and pet relinquishment fees charged by the shelter and in fundraising.

Waits, a longtime animal rights advocate, said he is pleased with the new shelter’s success.

“The operation has just been wonderful,” he said. “My comfort level with Great Plains is absolute. I think they would do everything they can to be successful.”

A question of money

But the sheer number of animals coming in the door has Thomas nervous about keeping the center afloat. In a July 19 letter to the county, she wrote that the current rate of intake is “not sustainable at the current contract rate for the city of Independence.”

And Waits said in an interview that if the intake from the city is substantially higher than anticipated, “at that point, they would need to step up.”

“If they’re using the shelter more, I think they’d be quick to recognize that and make adjustments to what they pay.”

He said he could not envision himself asking the county for operating money since the county paid for construction.

But the city disputes those intake projections because they’re based on only three months of operation.

Mike Jackson, assistant health director of disease prevention and control for Independence, said the numbers for April 8 through June 30 are not that far off from normal. The city has typically picked up more animals in the warm months, he said, before it tapers off in winter. The reason, Jackson said, is that more animals are outside and more litters are born in spring.

City Manager Robert Heacock also said in a reply to the county that Great Plains should review where the animals are coming from before singling out Independence. About a quarter of all animals taken in are from non-Independence sources, he said.

In any case, Great Plains will be pulling out all the stops to close its budget shortfall. There will be fundraisers and direct mail campaigns, Thomas said.

“If one third of the population gave a one-time annual gift of $15, no pet would go without humane shelter,” she said.

She said people in the community were vocal in their support of the new shelter.

“We now need those people to step up,” she said. “What we need the community to understand is without their support, our continued operations could be at risk.

“Saving lives is an expensive proposition.”

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