New Jackson County animal shelter empty, for now

With its pitched, green roof and split-log siding, people say Jackson County’s handsome new animal shelter more resembles a Bass Pro Shop than a dog pound.

But at 27,000-plus square feet, the new Regional Animal Shelter in rural Independence is not just attractive. It’s second in size only to Wayside Waifs’ south Kansas City headquarters, with room at any one time for 125 cats and 100 dogs.

Too bad those cages will remain empty for the time being, animal lovers say. Because even though the shelter is finished but for a few final touches, elected officials are still haggling over who is to run it.

Independence was always supposed to. Move-in tentatively was set for this month. But county officials recently backed away from a 2009 management agreement over concerns that Independence hadn’t set aside enough money to operate the new shelter, where few if any animals would ever need to be euthanized.

Might now a nonprofit animal welfare group be picked, or can Independence somehow be persuaded to spend more than planned?

While the county explores its options, the existing old Independence Animal Services shelter — a 7,100-square-foot facility built in 1978 — was full last week, even as its planned replacement sits empty three miles away.

“It’d sure be nice to get in there,” interim shelter director Mike Jackson said over the din of barking dogs in the cinderblock cube that everyone concedes is too small and ill-equipped to adequately handle the volume of animals that come through its doors.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When the deal was cut three years ago, county Legislator Dennis Waits deemed it an ideal partnership. Good for Independence, good for Jackson County and good for animals.

“The county didn’t want to operate and maintain an animal shelter and the city of Independence didn’t want to build one,” Waits said at the time. “So it’s actually a very, very good fit.”

Animal welfare is Waits’ passion. When spay and neuter services were eliminated from this year’s county budget, he saw to it that the money was not only restored, but also doubled.

He’s spearheaded the animal shelter project from its inception. For decades, county government paid either Kansas City or Independence to house strays and unwanted pets from the unincorporated areas in their shelters.

Waits was appalled to learn that many of those dogs and cats were put to sleep to alleviate overcrowding. So he convinced fellow legislators they had a moral obligation to build a county animal shelter — one that would be considered “no kill,” meaning a euthanization rate of less than 10 percent.

Legislators agreed to sell $5.3 million in bonds to pay for construction of a top-notch animal shelter on about six acres Independence owned at 21001 E. Missouri 78.

Independence would then close the cramped Dr. Eugene Theiss Memorial Animal Shelter, which Waits calls “horrible,” and run the new one. That meant Independence would foot all the bills to operate it, as well as provide animal control services in those parts of the county not within the city limits of Independence, Blue Springs or any other municipality.

Things were headed in that direction, too. Independence sought outside proposals but decided it could do the job cheaper than the only nonprofit submitting a bid, Great Plains Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals.

But as the new shelter neared completion late last month and Independence began posting help-wanted ads for people to staff it, Waits made a startling announcement.

The county would not be handing over the keys as scheduled. In fact, Waits said, the county should opt out of the agreement and, perhaps, contract with Great Plains or some other nonprofit.

The city’s proposed operating budget, he said, was insufficient.

The announcement threw Independence officials for a loop. Some said privately they were angered. Some council members have since come to accept the delay, or even to view it as a positive step. But they remain firm in their resolve not to increase the city’s cash outlay.

“From our standpoint, we have a valid contract that the city has fulfilled and we are ready to move forward,” Independence City Manager Robert Heacock told The Star.

County officials say their concern was based on Independence’s intention to run the much larger shelter with practically the same amount of tax dollars it used to operate the city’s existing animal shelter. Both the city and Great Plains estimated that the base amount to run the facility would be just shy of $1 million a year. But Independence’s net costs would be just $307,500 annually if it ran the shelter itself, compared with $883,000 if Great Plains ran it, according to one analysis.

The county questioned the city’s heavy reliance on volunteers and new fees to run the shelter.

But given its budget constraints, there was simply no way the city could justify dipping deeper into its general fund.

“We have pressing needs for police and firefighters,” Councilman Jim Schultz said. “We don’t have any extra money.”

And besides, Independence officials say their operating plan met or exceeded every requirement in their agreement with the county. For instance, the city is required to have the center open to the public 35 hours and six days a week. The Independence Health Department plans to keep it open 49 hours.

“The contract had a list of requirements to fulfill, and we have fulfilled all of them,” Councilwoman Eileen Weir said.

At the heart of the argument is Waits’ desire to have a county facility in which dogs and cats are euthanized only in the rarest circumstances.

Great Plains has a proven record in that regard. Its facility in Merriam is no-kill. He doesn’t trust Independence to match that under the current plan.

But Independence officials point to the kill rate at its shelter as proof of the city’s commitment. Between 8 percent and 9 percent of the animals taken in are euthanized, well within the definition of “no-kill.”

Further, the agreement doesn’t require Independence to run a no-kill center from the outset, Heacock said, but rather, as the agreement states, “work towards the goal of maintaining a ‘no kill’ shelter.”

“That is not a promise of attainment right out of the gate,” he said.

Discussions continue. Both sides claim there’s no animosity between them.

Meantime, the county is making ready to start the bidding process all over again. Waits now believes an animal welfare group like Great Plains or Wayside Waifs would be a better fit for the county, as they are more capable at fundraising than any municipality could ever be.

And once a nonprofit is selected, he’d hope that Independence and other Jackson County cities would contract with that group for services.

Despite being spurned, Independence officials say they are willing to consider all options at this point.

“I believe everybody has the same interest in mind,” Weir said. “We all care about these animals.”