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City Council says no to buying animal shelter

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

The Regional Animal Shelter agreement between the city of Independence and Jackson County, hastily arranged two years ago when the county’s shelter operator unexpectedly backed out, expires this summer. The county, which built the shelter that opened in 2013, would like to transfer ownership to the city, which now operates the shelter. 

But the Independence City Council turned down a resolution Monday authorizing that, presumably sending the two sides head back to the negotiating table. 

“At a minimum, we need to talk with them and make sure we get something in place on animals in unincorporated Jackson County,” said Independence City Manager Zach Walker, referring to the agreement expiring this summer.

The proposed purchase would have the city assume ownership of the shelter, along with the remaining debt of about $4.2 million in bond payments, while the county would pay a fee for services for the animals coming from outside the city. The shelter is on city-owned land, complicating the county’s efforts to refinance the bonds. 

“The very first priority was to make land and building same entity,” Walker said. “It was proving problematic because the rating agencies are looking at this arrangement and saying ‘That does not look right.’” 

The county’s bond adviser said last September refinancing would save the county about $1 million over the life of the bonds, taking advantage of currently low interest rates.

Council Member Karen DeLuccie said she didn’t believe the shelter building is worth the cost of what’s left to pay off the bonds – the opposite of what Walker said the county believes. DeLuccie and four other council members voted Monday against the purchase. Council Member Mike Huff and Mayor Eileen Weir voted for it.

“We have enough other outstanding financial obligations that I hate to add to our burden, even if the use tax was passed,” DeLuccie said.

According to city documents, with the purchased proposed Monday, Independence would have paid off the bonds in about 20 years.

When Great Plains SPCA announced two years ago that it would back out of its contract, the city agreed to step in and promised to keep it a no-kill shelter. To help offset costs, the county has paid a $100,000 annual subsidy for two years. The county was also scheduled to buy the shelter’s seven acres from the city for $240,000 and lease it back for $1, but that transaction has not taken place.

In August 2019, Independence voters approved the online use tax, with the city’s promise that those revenues would be split between the shelter and adding police officers. Officials estimated that would net about $750,000 annually toward shelter operations.

The county has offered to pay a per-animal, per-day cost to house animals taken in from unincorporated Jackson County. According to the state auditor, which recently looked at various aspects of Jackson County operations over the course of three years (2017-19), five out of every six dogs and cats at the shelter came from Independence during that time, and the per-animal cost for those taken in from unincorporated Jackson County ranged from $3,314 in 2018 to $7,286 in 2017.

Another factor in the negotiations: deferred maintenance – specifically the HVAC system and reliable hot water. Those costs will be somewhere in the five-figure range, according to city documents.

One thing that won’t change, regardless of land and building ownership, is that the city will continue to operate the animal shelter. Given that, Walker said, “We need to figure out what is that per-animal, per-day cost. It’s important to clarify that cost, and getting the land and building under the same entity.”