Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local News

February 15, 2014

Humane society funding dominates City briefing

Panel reports on police chief search

AMERICUS — Seven representatives of the Sumter Humane Society (SHS) board attended the City of Americus administrative briefing Monday.

Lisa Whitaker, chairman of the board, said she really didn’t understand why they had been invited but they were open to discussion.

“We’re not like the Boys and Girls Club asking for a donation. We provide the City with a service. Is this how we’re being classified?” she asked.

Mayor Barry Blount said the SHS is classified as an “entity” just as the Boys & Girls Club, the public library, among others. He said his biggest question is how the SHS accounts for animals brought to the shelter, whether they are city versus county animals.

SHS shelter director, Ruth Olson, said when an individual brings an animal to the shelter, they are asked for a driver’s license to determine residence. Whitaker said their contract states they will accept animals from the county and the city.

“But Americus residents pay county taxes, too,” Blount said.

“The county gives more money than the City,” Whitaker said. “We provide the same care for all the animals. The funding we receive is not enough to do all we need to. We have mandates for the level of care we provide.”

Currently, the County funds the SHS at $49,000 annually and the City at $38,250.

Rob Brown, treasurer of the SHS board, said about half of their budget consists of donations and grants.

“But we live in Sumter County, too,” said Council member Walton Grant.

Brown suggested that the City of Americus get the County animal control officer to police the city limits as well.

“Why do we need a sheriff’s office, fire and other serviced?” he asked.

“You’re talking about consolidation there and we’re not,” Grant said.

Linda Kidd, a SHS board member, said they keep up with which animals are picked up in the county and which in the city.

SHS representative Tinka Newman said, “Why differentiate between animal control officers or individuals turning in animals? The Department of Agriculture gives us mandates. We can’t afford to meet those with financial funding.”

The mayor still wanted to know how the number of animals is generated. Kidd said it’s been “inside the city limits and outside the city limits.”

Olson said when an individual surrenders an animal, they usually say it is a “stray.”

Whitaker said they would be “more than happy if the City and County want to work together.”

The City voted late last year to keep its funding for the SHS at the same level as the previous year.

As the discussion continued, Blount told the group that what the City has already allocated “is all we can do. I wish we could grant what every entity wanted.”

Olson was asked about the numbers of animals brought to the shelter. She reported 959 cats and dogs in the city and 731 in the county.

Brown commented that last year they also came before the mayor ant City Council and asked for an additional $5,000 so they could to cover expenses until the end of the year. The City granted that request.

“What happened since then?” Brown asked.

Blount said, “We, as a body, prioritize our budget.”

Laura Lee Bernstein, City CAO, explained that the City’s budget is based on a calendar year, not a fiscal year.

“On Jan. 1, we start spending the money we budgeted for based on anticipated revenues,” she said. “We predicted on the conservative side. Come July, if we don’t have the revenues, we have to raise taxes or cut again with the entities. We can’t come back and ask the entities to refund the money. I recommend you  can’t start spending money before you get it. We didn’t raise taxes this year.”

Brown mentioned their assorted funding sources: $49,000 from the County and $38,250 from the City of Americus, $2,000 from the City of Andersonville and $1,500 from the City of Leslie.

He said with only $100,000 per year in assured funding, it is very difficult to meet their $125,000 payroll for the eight employees.

“We aren’t a luxury organization asking for perks. We’re trying to make payroll for the eight employees, only three of which are full-time. They get no benefits. We use volunteers and inmates. Considering all we do for all these animals, we only ask for $58,000. For what you get, it’s a good deal.”

Whitaker asked what the City budgets for its animal control officer. Blount said that comes under the police department’s budget.

Olson and others drove home the point that the animals they receive are meant to be adopted into good homes, but because of the sheer volume, euthanization is necessary.

“It’s a personal decision to have a pet,” Blount said.

Brown countered, “We’re doing a service by taking these animals to care for them.”

Whitaker added, “We’re not in the breeding business. We’re accepting these animals so they won’t be running on the streets.”

Blount stayed with his argument about city versus county.

“Why not count the dogs in the city as being in the county?” he asked.

Kidd said, “That’s irrelevant to this. If they are picked up in the city, they are counted in the city.”

Blount then asked the question in a slightly different way. “Why can’t the excess animals be counted as county and not city?”

Brown offered an example.

“Let’s say a dog gets hit by a car and the animal control officer takes it to the shelter. We have to take it to a vet for euthanization and we get billed for it. Why not just take the dog directly to the vet and let the City pay for it?”

Whitaker asked the mayor why, if the police and fire department don’t come to her house, should she pay taxes for those services?

“I live in the city and I pay city and county taxes. If that’s the case, we should just consolidate,” she said.

Newman, with tears in her eyes, expressed frustration.

“ ... We have to document where the animals came from for the Agriculture Department. I wish we could shut the shelter down. I wish we could get these 900 animals adopted, bur we’ve had to euthanize a large number over the years. How heart-wrenching is that for employees working for minimum wage who have to scoop poop and wash dirty bedding? The reason we have 900 animals is because we don’t have responsible pet owners.”

Olson said that when an animal is surrendered, they have to take it because “they’ll dump them anyway.”

“We have a bottom line like everyone,” said Blue Argo of the SHS board. “When we hit the limit, that’s it. We have to euthanize.”

Kidd explained that the SHS does a “good job of fundraising. We have a lot of public interest. We provide a worthwhile service. We do a great job providing services for animals who don’t have the ability to speak for themselves.”

The mayor said, “We don’t have the money now. In June, if we have additional funds we’ll come back. Our budget is bare bones. I’d love to fund more for your organization and the others ... Your appeal has not fallen on deaf ears. Many of us sitting around this table are pet owners and animal lovers but we just don’t have it.”

Olson invited the mayor and Council members to come and visit the shelter.

“You need to see what a good job we do,” she said.

“People can’t stand to see animals caged like that, knowing what’s probably going yo happen to so many of them,” Kidd added. “That’s why it’s so hard to get volunteers. The City of Americus needs to start looking at a spay-neuter program like the one in Muscogee County.”

In that program, pet owners are assessed a $5 per year fee for a neutered pet and $25 per year for unneutered. Fees for breeders are higher.

Blount agreed that they should look into the Muscogee County program to see if it might work here.

Whitaker reminded the Council of the new Americats program which will spay-neuter feral cat populations.

“People come into the shelter all the time and can’t believe what a nice facility we have,” Olson said. “All we need is to provide food, water and someone to clean the pens and  interact with the animals.”

Kidd said it is their ultimate goal to become a no-kill shelter.

“We’re trying desperately to work towards adopting out the animals,” she said.

Newman said, “I challenge all of you to come out and pick out one dog for euthanization.”

Kidd again urged the mayor and Council to investigate a spay and neuter program that’s been adopted by Muscogee County.

Blount pledged to look into it.

“We will do everything we can to get you the money you need,” he said.

“I’’ve always supported the humane society,” said Council member Grant, ”ever since I’ve been on Council. I’ve just had a concern about the accounting.”

After the humane society people left, Danny Jackson, special agent in charge, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Region 3 Office, was asked to brief Council on the process for hiring a new police chief.

“I’m sure you found all enlightening,” Council member Lou Chase said to Jackson of the humane society discussions.

Jackson said he was “humbled and honored” to be asked to serve on the police chief search panel. Other members are Sumter County Sheriff Pete Smith, Vanessa Wall of South Georgia Technical College’s criminal justice program and Chief David Perry of Florida State University Police Department.

Jackson reported the panel had taken the 20 applicants and  vetted the, narrowing the field to a “manageable number.” He said after the field was narrowed to six applicants, it suggested the City do background checks. The field was again narrowed to four.

“That’s it for the panel,” Jackson said. “It’s the City’s job to interview the candidates and choose.” He added that the panel did not rank the final candidates.

Blount said he had met with Lake Blackshear Regional Library director, Anne Isbell, who had expressed her “disappointment at the cut in the library’s  funding.” He said Isbell has explained that their state funding was predicted by local funding.

“The library’s near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I want to see it provide services, but don’t know how.”

Bernstein said she could write a letter stating that the funding had not decreased much.

“They could request a waiver and may be exempt,” she said. “State funding doesn’t completely ride on our funding.”

Council member Shirley Green Reese said the letter needs to be written now.

“They’ve been consistently funded while others haven’t,” Bernstein said. “It’s like it’s their turn to take the cut, and rotate.”

“We’ve said we’re going to look at it all in July,” Council member Juanita Wilson said. “But we can’t spend money we don’t have.”

The mayor expressed his hope that their projections were low enough for revenues that “we’ll all get a good surprise. They’re (funded entities) important but where do you draw the line? ... We have to make tough choices and things are improving but we won’t know how much until we do our mid-year budget analysis.”

Council member Carla Cook said her constituents had asked about how the Rylander Theatre continues to be funded while the library gets cut. Blount explained that the Rylander benefits from the local hotel-motel tax which is earmarked for tourism.

“It must be spent on tourism,” he said. He added that “there are library alternatives, Georgia Southwestern State University for example” where anyone from the community can go. “But I’m not trying to minimize the importance of Lake Blackshear Regional Library.”


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