About halfway through the countdown until Great Plains SPCA exits as operator, not much is definite about the future of Jackson County's Regional Animal Shelter.
Three months after Great Plains announced it had given its six-month notice to stop operating the shelter in eastern Independence, citing financial constraints, city and county officials say they continue to negotiate on the shelter's status come mid-July.
The Examiner asked to speak with Mark Trosen, Jackson County's deputy chief operating officer, regarding the shelter's future, but county Spokesperson Marshanna Hester said the county continues to work with the city “to determine how best to move forward” and there was nothing more to update. Meanwhile, Independence officials speak of working toward a “smooth transition.” The city is under no contractual obligation to take on shelter operation, but in a mayor's group meeting of civic leaders earlier this month, Mayor Eileen Weir said that could well happen anyway.
“We are preparing for the possibility we will take over operation,” she said. “This community demands that we have a high-quality animal shelter, with a certain live-release percentage.”
Former county legislator Dennis Waits, an ardent animal advocate who championed building, said anything less than a no-kill shelter “is not consistent with the philosophy under which the shelter is built.”
Great Plains has operated the no-kill shelter, which is owned by Jackson County and sits on city-owned land, since it opened in 2013. It essentially replaced Independence's smaller city-run shelter.
“No kill” means no animal is put down barring a clear medical need, and Great Plains has had a live-release rate well above 90 percent. The non-profit organization, headquartered in Merriam, Kansas, said any animals remaining in mid-July will go either to foster homes or the Merriam shelter.
Taking over the animal shelter would seemingly stretch Independence city's general fund budget. City leaders have long lamented the sales tax revenue squeeze caused by online shopping and have already asked voters once to approve the use tax – essentially an online sales tax applied at the same rate of the local sales tax at a brick-and-mortar place.
Weir pointed out that when the city of Liberty got voters to approve the use tax there, it successfully pushed a message that the tax revenue would go toward its animal shelter and parks.
If the city decides to put the use tax on the ballot again for August, a campaign committee for the use tax has been filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission under the name “We Support Pets and Police.”
Under the contract the county and city first signed for the shelter, Independence paid $435,000 a year for services, and that number rose above a half-million, 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, as well as a few from unincorporated Jackson County.
Under the new contract signed with Great Plains in 2018, the city paid the county $546,522. That number is slated to be $557,452 this year – in equal quarterly payments – and was scheduled to rise to $568,600 in 2020, nearly $580,000 in 2021 and more than $591,500 in 2022.
Both city and county 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 the required six months notice. It 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.
Great Plains later said “ongoing issues with insufficient funding” had hurt its financial health and have been the biggest challenge in operating the Regional Animal Shelter.
Spokesperson Mandy Stark said Great Plains also aims to make the transition smooth and provide as much assistance, education and support as possible to the new operator.
“We want to make sure that we share our best practices and lessons learned,” she said, “such as how we do enrichment for the animals, how we rotate them for play and exercise and how we work with volunteers and the community.”