Our Opinion: Devote pet fees to building new animal shelter

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After nine years of collecting pet owner privilege fees, Wilson County has saved roughly a third of what it will cost to build a new animal shelter.

County leaders know that's not good enough. If today's stingy savings rate continues, Commissioner Bill Blackman acknowledged it could take "forever to get the money to build the shelter."

The Wilson County Board of Commissioners seems receptive to picking up the pace - though by how much remains to be seen.

During a public hearing on the county's $96.9 million budget for fiscal year 2018-19, Commissioner Chris Hill suggested a $15,000 boost in shelter savings, taking the total for the upcoming year to $85,000.

That's a step in the right direction to be sure, but on this seemingly endless path, Wilson County is in desperate need of a leap. 

Officials collected nearly $164,000 in pet fees this year, and the $70,000 added to the shelter piggy bank accounts for just under 43 percent of that total. The boost Hill recommended would ensure that more than half of animal fees will be put to their proper purpose.

Fee collection began in 2009, and when commissioners authorized the levy on pet owners the year before, animal advocates understood that it was enacted based on the need to design, commission and construct a replacement for the aging Airport Road shelter.

That's how Roger Lucas, the sole remaining member of the 2008 board, remembers it, too.

"I know that I was presented an animal fee for the sole intent and purpose of these monies going to build a new shelter, and that is what I voted for," Lucas wrote in a summer 2012 email to Ellis Williford, the county manager at the time.

But the animal control ordinance that authorized the fees didn't spell out how revenues would be spent, and on direction of the commissioners' chair and vice chair, Williford deposited the cash in the county's general fund. Shelter savings became surplus, and the money was spent almost as quickly as it came in.

Minutes from the meeting note that then-Sheriff Wayne Gay told commissioners that pet fees would be "applied toward a new shelter and improvements in the animal control program."

Yet no fees were earmarked for a new shelter until two years ago, and while some of the proceeds did cover Wilson County Animal Enforcement costs, we're scratching our heads as to what the specific "improvements" were. 

If 100 percent of pet privilege payments had been saved, assuming an average $160,000 annual collection, a gleaming, state-of-the-art shelter could have been built in 2014. 

Instead, we're barely a third of the way to the finish line.

County pet owners have previous boards to blame for the communication breakdown and outright misappropriation of money that got us here. However, that doesn't absolve our current commissioners of responsibility to fix their predecessors' mistakes.

It's encouraging that commissioners are facing the fuzzy math head-on, but it troubles us that they raised the subject of how the fees will be used after the shelter is built. There doesn't seem to be a sunset in sight, and that's a problem.

The yearly charge for owning a dog or cat functions as more of a pet penalty than a user fee. While registered animals may run away or bite a neighbor and require an Animal Enforcement response, simply owning a pet and caring for it responsibly places no unique burden on county services. 

Folks without dogs are just as likely to report strays — maybe more likely, in fact, since dog-lovers will be concerned about unclaimed shelter animals being euthanized and might choose to reach out to a private animal rescue group instead.

If pet owners aren't costing the county any more than the average resident, what justifies the fees? Wouldn't an arbitrary tax on lamps, lawnmowers or patio umbrellas make about as much sense?

Fortunately, the vast majority of dog and cat owners don't mind coughing up the cash. They just want it to be used for its intended purpose. They're hardly driving a hard bargain. 

Commissioners will find willing partners in local animal advocates if they devote the entirety of registration fee revenue to building the shelter. Anything less is simply too little, too late.