Our Opinion: Long-awaited animal shelter coming in 2020

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As Wilson County enters a new decade, a modern animal shelter on N.C. 42 East will replace the crumbling eyesore on Airport Drive. And it took earnest efforts from Wilson County stakeholders to bring the long-overdue project to fruition.

On Jan. 1, 2019, we devoted the entirety of our “Wishing for Wilson” editorial — a New Year’s tradition begun by Times matriarch Elizabeth Gold Swindell — to the need for a new shelter. This year marked a full decade since Wilson County began collecting yearly pet registration fees from dog and cat owners. For several years, pet fee proceeds that should have been earmarked for shelter construction were spent instead of saved.

“Construction on a new Wilson County Animal Shelter must begin before we ring in 2020,” we said in this space a year ago.

While that goal wasn’t met, county officials have come a long way toward correcting past mistakes and a new shelter is on the way, with construction scheduled this year.

“We should get all finals from the engineer and general contractor by the end of January or first of February,” Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt told the Times’ editorial page in a Thursday email. “We hope to be breaking ground by the summer or early fall. We hope sooner.”

In a nod to transparency and public interest in the project, officials have added a page to the county website, www.wilson-co.com, called “Animal shelter updates/Follow Our Paws” where updated construction plans will be posted.

“We are excited about the shelter,” Hunt wrote. “Citizens will see a sign going up in the next few months indicating the new site.”

Positive change is in the works, but that change didn’t come easily.

For nearly 17 years, stakeholders asked the Wilson County Board of Commissioners to build a new public animal shelter to replace an aging and structurally deficient facility. After nearly two decades of discussion, a Times public records request helped spur county commissioners to action.

In May, County Manager Denise Stinagle released her proposed 2019-20 budget, earmarking $100,000 toward new animal shelter construction. That would have resulted in a $430,000 balance for the project, and a prior year estimate had pegged the cost of a new facility at $800,000.

The Times filed a public records request for all email correspondence to and from commissioners and county officials regarding the animal shelter. The request revealed:

• The existing shelter had failed a recent state inspection and was in jeopardy of being closed.

• Elected commissioners were routinely ignoring constituents who emailed them to advocate for a new shelter.

We published a story on the inspector’s findings and followed up with a front-page editorial — to our knowledge, the first of its kind in this newspaper’s 123-year history — calling on commissioners to fully fund a replacement shelter.

Wilson County residents agreed it was long past time to settle the matter, and they made their feelings known in phone calls, emails and visits to their commissioners and letters to the editor on this page.

In June, commissioners increased the shelter allocation by $370,000, reaching the $800,000 threshold.

Later that month, state Sen. Rick Horner, R-Nash, included a $200,000 appropriation in North Carolina’s state budget to help build the facility. The Senate Education Committee co-chairman credited the Times’ coverage and commentary, joking that he “got tired of reading about it in the paper” and “wanted them to go ahead and build the thing.”

While county taxpayers are relieved to see the shelter project progressing, not everyone’s happy. Max Fitz-Gerald, who owns and operates the nonprofit rescue group For the Love of Dogs with his wife, Della, believes the N.C. 42 site is less desirable than the current location. His refrain: The new shelter must be an adoption center, not a killing center.

We agree that finding loving homes for adoptable pets must be the shelter’s top priority. Augmenting paid staff with rescue group volunteers and increasing hours of operation seems like a better strategy to reduce euthanasia rates than bickering over the building’s physical address and delaying the project further.

Fitz-Gerald’s right about the facility’s purpose. For that reason, we recommend that commissioners use the name “Wilson County Animal Adoption Center” when the new shelter is built.

Let’s have a true adoption center — a clean, safe building that’s open to the public it serves so that unwanted strays can become four-legged family members.