A week after Great Plains SPCA gave notice that it would stop operating the Jackson County Regional Animal Shelter in eastern Independence, county and city officials have no answers to questions about the no-kill shelter's future existence.
Both county and city officials appeared to be caught off guard when Great Plains posted the news on its website and Facebook page the afternoon of Jan. 16, giving the county six months notice. The non-profit organization, headquartered in Merriam, Kansas, said that “after thoughtful consideration, we have determined it is no longer fiscally prudent for us to continue to run the shelter” and that it needs to focus more on its core business in Merriam.
In an online post days later, Great Plains said “ongoing issues with insufficient funding” had hurt its financial health and have been the biggest challenge in operating the Regional Animal Shelter. The shelter, owned by the county and constructed on city-owned land, opened in 2013 with Great Plains in charge.
City and county officials had been scheduled to meet for the first time Wednesday regarding the shelter, but Tuesday night's winter storm nixed that.
Great Plains will continue to operate its no-kill shelter and adoption services in Merriam and provide in-house veterinary services to the animals there, though it will end public veterinary care clinic services in Merriam effective Feb. 1.
Until operations cease in Independence in mid-July, Great Plains says, it will continue to accept animals as long as cities make contracted payments.
The six-month notice is per Great Plains' agreement with the county. In a statement last week, Jackson County spokesperson Marshanna Hester said the county “will use this time to assess the situation and determine the appropriate manner for moving forward.”
Independence City Manager Zach Walker said the Great Plains news “was not on our radar.”
Former County Legislator Dennis Waits, an animal advocate who championed building the shelter, said he was disappointed but could understand Great Plains' position.
“I'm hoping people will rally around this issue and maybe find something we could do,” Waits said.
“It scares me,” he said. “I don't know if anybody else is capable of taking it and running it that way, as a no-kill shelter.”
“No kill” means no animal taken is put down barring a clear medical need, and Great Plains has had a live-release rate well above 90 percent.
“Anything less (than no-kill) is not consistent with the philosophy under which the shelter is built,” Waits said.
Under the contract the county and city first signed for the shelter, Independence paid $435,000 for services, and that number has risen to $515,000, though Great Plains has often contended the city's payments have not been enough given the number of animals the shelter takes in from Independence and unincorporated Jackson County. The shelter essentially replaced the city's own smaller shelter.
Independence's pit bull ban leads to some restrictions on adoptions vs. intake, but that legislation already was in place when Great Plains bid to operate the shelter.
“The city has been reasonable to work with,” Waits said, “and there's been good support from the mayor's office.”
“But at the same time … X amount of money can feed 250 people in your budget, and all of a sudden X doesn't cover feeding 500.”
According to Great Plains' tax statements, its government contributions for the whole organization in 2013, when it started operating the shelter, were $461,366. That figure has grown annually and was $1.2 million in 2017.
Tax documents also show Great Plains' balance had fallen from $872,200 at the end of 2015 to $148,600 a year later, then grew back to $602,192 at the end of 2017. From 2012 to 2017, expenses exceeded revenues twice. Figures from 2018 are not yet available.
Waits said Great Plains' fundraisers have been “successful to a degree,” but large contributions from Chuck and Jennifer Laue, Great Plains board members and co-founders of a foundation that benefits animal advocates, have particularly helped make up budget differences, and that's not sustainable long term, he said.
Great Plains says it has about 100 dogs and 118 cats at the Regional Animal Shelter, though those figures naturally fluctuate. Any animals remaining in July will be placed in foster homes, adopted or relocated to the the Merriam shelter. In 2018, it cared for more than 3,300 animals in Independence. In Merriam, it serves more than 3,500 annually.