• Last hurdle cleared; animal shelter to open April 9

  • The Regional Animal Shelter in Independence is set to open April 9.

    The Jackson County Legislature on Monday approved changes to an agreement with the city of Independence, concluding nearly a year of wrangling between the two sides.

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  • The Regional Animal Shelter in Independence is set to open April 9.
    The Jackson County Legislature on Monday approved changes to an agreement with the city of Independence, concluding nearly a year of wrangling between the two sides.
    “We need to get this open. We need to move forward,” said Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City.
    The $5.5 million, 27,000-square-foot shelter will be operated by the Great Plains Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a group the city had rejected at one point last year. It will take animals from Independence and from unincorporated parts of the county, replacing the city’s Vista Avenue shelter that’s about one-fourth the size.
    Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence, has pushed for the new shelter for years and had held out for making it a no-kill shelter, meaning no more than 10 percent of the animals coming in the door are put down.
    “Every animal that enters the shelter is going to have a very high opportunity to be adopted, and that’s what no-kill is all about,” Waits said Monday.
    Courtney Thomas, president and CEO of Great Plains SPCA, echoed that idea.
    “This gives us a model for other communities to aspire to achieve,” she said.
    Concept, conflict, compromise
    At first, the two sides had a simple idea: They signed an agreement in June 2009 under which the county would build the shelter – issuing $5.5 million in bonds to pay for it – and the city would run it at its expense.
    The shelter is on Missouri 78 just east of Metropolitan Community College-Blue River. It will take animals – mostly dogs and cats but also the occasional rabbit, guinea pig or something more exotic – from both Independence and unincorporated parts of the county.
    But there have been speed bumps.
    The county had to replace the company first awarded the construction contract because that company couldn’t get the needed bonding. That meant a delay of about a year.
    Then last year, as construction proceeded, the city put the operations of the shelter out for bid. Great Plains SPCA was the sole bidder, but city officials determined it was out of their price range and decided instead to have the city Health Department run it directly – an idea the county never embraced. At one point last summer, county officials warned the city about adding staff who might end up being let go when the shelter operator was finally determined.
    On Monday, Waits singled out County Executive Mike Sanders and one of his top aides, Chief Operating Officer Shelly Temple-Kneuvean, for stepping in to keep the conversation going.
    “And that was especially fruitful, especially when negotiations essentially broke down,” Waits said.
    The two sides differed on several points, but two of the main ones were costs and the no-kill issue. The city viewed the no-kill requirement as a last-minute curveball and, moreover, said that despite the limitations of the old Vista Avenue shelter, the staff there managed to meet no-kill criteria anyway.
    Page 2 of 3 - On the cost issue, county legislators said they put had county taxpayers on the hook for enough with the $5.5 million to build the shelter. City Council members also said they had a hard ceiling on how much they could commit.
    “This has been difficult,” Waits said Monday.
    Officials predicted that they’d have things worked out by the middle of the fall, but it wasn’t until Dec. 3 – the County Legislature’s last meeting of 2012 – that legislators voted to amend the 2009 agreement. The county would get $435,000 a year for five years from the city and pass that through to Great Plains to run the shelter. That afternoon county officials said they expected the City Council would approve the new deal that night.
    It didn’t happen.
    Council members raised several questions and addressed the issue at meetings over several weeks. Last month, the council approved the amended agreement but added a couple of things. The county would pick up potential severance costs for any employees and would pay for some expenses the city had incurred. Those two totaled $87,106.
    On Monday, the Legislature approved that on a vote of 8-1.
    The county also is paying for utilities, estimated at about $130,000 a year. Temple-Kneuvean said even so, the county is saving a little money because currently it spends $150,000 with Kansas City Animal Control and Wayside Waifs, costs that go away with the opening of the new shelter.
    Challenging math
    Great Plains has a five-year contract to run the shelter. Thomas said it will cost $1.3 million a year to run. Over the years, she said, the Independence shelter had handled about 4,000 animals a year, and her group is budgeting for 5,000 – though it could handle double that down the line. There has been talk of someday getting other cities to use the regional shelter, too.
    Great Plains gets the $435,000 a year from the city plus the roughly $130,000 from the county for utilities. That leaves about $735,000 a year that the group has to raise through fees, such as those for adoptions or those charged to an owner surrendering an animal.
    A dog coming through the door, Thomas said, is about a $500 expense. There’s a health check, and often an animal needs medical care. Sometimes there are fleas. Animals are spayed or neutered before they are adopted, and they get a chip. The average dog at the three Great Plains facilities in Merriam, Kan., gets a new home six days after it comes to the shelter – it’s 11 days for a cat – and Thomas said that quick turnaround is important financially.
    The SPCA also spays and neuters animals – 9,000 last year – so that’s a revenue source, although most owners turning to the SPCA get a discount because of their low incomes.
    Page 3 of 3 - Plus the group solicits money. For example, Thomas said, if everyone in Kansas City gave $10 a month, the no-kill issue would be resolved, she said, and she echoed what Waits said about the new shelter representing a crucial step forward for the metro area.
    “This asset in Eastern Jackson County ... can truly transform this region ... to no-kill,” she said, but stressed that Great Plains encourages people to help, whether with their time or their checkbooks.
    “There’s a way for everybody to get involved,” she said.
    One ‘no’ vote
    Legislator Bob Spence, R-Lee’s Summit, cast the only vote against the proposal on Monday.
    As he did in December, when legislators amended the 2009 agreement and strongly indicated they thought the issue was settled, he pressed for assurances on funding.
    “My question is: Is this the end of it? Are we also going to have to pay operational costs on any other expenses?” Spence said.
    Other than the utilities and the one-time $87,106 expense, the answer is no, Waits and Temple-Kneuvean said.
    That $87,106 is out of the county’s health fund, and that’s why Spence said he voted no. The people of Jackson County tax themselves for health services mainly for the indigent, he said, and there’s “no doubt” of a clear understanding on their part that that means human health.
    “That tax,” he said, “is for human beings, not dogs.”

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