Government & Politics

Will KC voters buy the pitch for a new animal shelter?

The push for a new KC animal shelter

Teresa Johnson, CEO of KC Pet Project, gave a tour of the Kansas City Animal Shelter on Raytown Road in March 2017. Since then, KC has moved forward with building a new animal shelter in Swope Park.
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Teresa Johnson, CEO of KC Pet Project, gave a tour of the Kansas City Animal Shelter on Raytown Road in March 2017. Since then, KC has moved forward with building a new animal shelter in Swope Park.

Kansas City’s proposal to replace its dilapidated animal shelter as part of its $800 million infrastructure bond package has major-league backing from pet lovers — and Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy.

“#RaiseTheWoof for a new animal shelter for Kansas City!” Duffy tweeted on Feb. 20. He urged people to vote April 4 for Question 3, which includes the new shelter plus other city building upgrades.

Duffy said the current shelter simply needs more room.

“I’m a dog guy,” Duffy told Star sports reporter Pete Grathoff earlier this month. “Hopefully, they can get that passed.”

But the $14 million taxpayer price tag has also drawn opposition from critics who say the city should spend that kind of money on homeless people, not homeless pets.

“There’s a substantial homeless population,” said Gayle Holliday, spokeswoman for Freedom Inc., the African-American political club. She said the group opposes all three city ballot measures, which seek a property tax increase for major improvements to streets, sidewalks, flood control and city buildings. “While there are many animal lovers in our community, that is not the highest priority for our people right now.”

Citizens for Responsible Government, another opposition group, suggested Kansas City should find a way to work with some other shelters that get by primarily on donations and volunteers, although city officials say Kansas City’s facility serves more animals and has far greater needs.

This whole debate focuses on Kansas City’s April 4 ballot, which includes three city-sponsored questions: $600 million for streets, bridges and sidewalks; $150 million for flood control; and $50 million for city building improvements. Each question requires 57.1 percent voter approval.

The entire $800 million bond authorization would require a property tax increase, but Question 3 has the smallest tax impact. Over 20 years, the $50 million in bonds from Question 3 is estimated to cost the average household with a $140,000 house about $10 per year.

If voters approve Question 3, the city says it plans to spend $14 million in bond funds, along with millions in private contributions, on a new shelter to be built in Swope Park, near the Zoo and Lakeside Nature Center. City Manager Troy Schulte said construction could start in the next year or two and be finished in 18 months.

No one, not even critics, doubts that Kansas City’s current animal shelter at 4400 Raytown Road is woefully outdated.

“It’s way past time,” said City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who has been urging the city to build a new shelter for 10 years. “Kansas City is better than this.”

The shelter handles about 10,000 animals per year (mostly dogs and cats but also ducks, rabbits and other oddities) in what is basically a construction trailer left over from Truman Sports Complex construction in 1972. It’s had little updating over the years, except the 2015 addition of some specialty trailers for surgeries and medical care.

“This is a big challenge for us, trying to run a modern animal shelter out of a building that’s very inadequate and really aging,” said Teresa Johnson, CEO of Kansas City Pet Project, which manages the shelter for the city.

While the area’s private shelters do a great job, Johnson said the city’s shelter handles a more difficult population, taking in four or five injured or sick animals every day, plus many lost or abandoned pets.

Dog cages are crammed into the main room in a way that often stresses the dogs. The cat rooms are also crowded. The heating and ventilation systems are poor. The drains from the cages became so rotted last year that they had to be replaced. City officials worry that Missouri’s Agriculture Department will condemn the facility at some point, although it passed its most recent inspection last August.

City officials praise KC Pet Project for dramatically improving the animal care and adoption rate since taking over shelter management in 2012. But they say a decent shelter is long overdue, and they note that the private sector is pitching in $10 million to help with both construction and a maintenance endowment. They have a preliminary plan for a 60,000-square-foot building, roughly four times the current size.

“There is a passionate belief in this public/private partnership, which is a tribute to the commitment of this mayor, city manager, parks board and city council to finally solve the challenge,” said Roshann Parris, a public relations executive who is helping lead the “Raise The Woof KC” fundraising campaign.

She said project supporters looked at converting one of the city’s closed schools, but concluded that a new building would be more efficient and less expensive.

Parris also said no dollars that would normally go to serve homeless people would be diminished or diverted by this focus on a humane place for animals.

For those wondering why Kansas City taxpayers need to provide $14 million on top of $10 million in private dollars, Schulte notes that it cost taxpayers $19.6 million just to build the tow lot in 2008 for abandoned, stolen and impounded vehicles.

Other communities also have built multimillion-dollar animal shelters in recent years, including $17 million for a 36,000-square-foot facility in Denver in 2011 and a $15 million, 35,000-square-foot facility that just opened in the Pittsburgh, Pa., area. For a complex that could open in 2020, Las Vegas plans to spend $14 million (city and county dollars) renovating an existing 48,000-square-foot facility and is also raising $18 million in private dollars for a new adoption center.

In many communities, the county rather than the city funds the main animal shelter. Mayor Sly James says Kansas City tried to partner with Jackson County some years ago on a new shelter, but Jackson County decided instead to build a $5 million shelter in 2012 in Independence. That facility, operated by Great Plains SPCA, is usually full, according to operations director Tish Stephens.

Kansas City officials and the park board believe they’ve found the ideal location for a new city shelter on seven acres in Swope Park, at the northeast corner of Gregory Boulevard and Elmwood Avenue.

But some Swope Park neighbors are concerned about that location.

“If they wanted to give out land, why didn’t they put it deeper in the woods, instead of right in the community?” asks Demona Manlove, who lives in the Gregory Ridge neighborhood about a block from the park. “That’s going to ruin the ambiance of what Swope Park was supposed to be.”

She believes the tax dollars would be better used to address mowing, tree trimming, retaining walls and other maintenance in Swope Park and elsewhere in the city. She supports the street and flood control ballot measures but not this shelter spending.

Still, others say the shelter will enhance the park, and they believe the project will draw a strong Yes vote benefiting people as well as animals.

That’s because the rest of the $50 million in Question 3 would go for city building improvements, especially to address Americans With Disabilities issues. The city is under a federal mandate to do tens of millions of dollars worth of work to make restrooms, building entrances and city facilities more accessible, but doesn’t have a ready source of funds.

If this ballot measure fails, Schulte said the city will have to cut other services to free up money for the ADA requirements. If the Agriculture Department orders the current shelter closed, he said, the city would have to scramble on an emergency time frame to find a solution to its shelter woes.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley