The number of animals coming through the shelter has dropped off dramatically — and steadily — since 2000.
It was common to see 4,000 dogs and cats come through the shelter a year. But the number is down to 2,500.
That’s caused some critics to question why the county needs to build a new animal shelter. Kenneth Henson, chair of the Haywood County Republican Party, said most taxpayers don’t support spending $3 million on an animal shelter under any circumstance — but especially not when the county is planning a property tax increase in the coming year.
At a recent public hearing on the county budget, Henson said taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for a “dog house” to take care of other people’s unwanted pets.
Commissioner Mark Swanger replied that the animal shelter was a convenient “strawman” for critics to exploit.
“You pick something that sounds cute and use animal services as a whipping boy really, because you are talking about animals and not people,” Swanger said.
But Henson said it was a legitimate example of irresponsible spending being foisted on taxpayers.
“Yeah, it is really easy to pick that out,” Henson said. “When the average pay is $23,000 a year in Haywood County and there’s kids without a house to live in, yeah it is real easy to pick out the animal shelter as unnecessary spending if you have any common sense and any decency to you.”
At a county meeting this week, County Manager Ira Dove addressed skepticism about whether a new animal shelter is needed in light of the steady decline in animals coming through the existing shelter.
Going back 15 years, the shelter faced a chronic space shortage, he said. Animals were routinely put down to make room for the next batch showing up.
“The capacity was too small in the early 2000s,” Dove said.
But the shelter rarely hits capacity now.
The volume of animals has declined significantly since then thanks to the work of nonprofit animal welfare groups. More than 1,000 dogs and cats were diverted from the shelter last year by the animal advocacy groups, on top of the general decline in stray populations due to active spay/neuter programs.
But volume could return if the groups became less active.
“The shelter often used to reach capacity, and if these rescue groups aren’t out there they would reach capacity again immediately,” Dove said.
There can still be a handful of days during the year when the shelter reaches capacity, Dove said.
“If you walk in there on any given day, it is not at capacity, but if you get a lot of animals at any given time, it could be,” he said.
While the shelter isn’t necessarily maxed out in terms of space, it lacks a modern design. The cinderblock building isn’t properly insulated or soundproofed. It doesn’t have adequate flushing systems for cleaning cages. And there’s not enough quarantine areas for sick animals, according to county officials.
The county has made an offer of $230,000 for 2.6 acres of land between Haywood Community College and Haywood Regional Medical Center to build a new shelter on. The county is now in the due diligence phase before finalizing the purchase.
The ballpark $3 million price tag for the animal shelter isn’t a sign of luxury or opulence, Dove said. Animal shelters by nature demand technical specifications — from high-volume water and sewer systems to veterinary equipment.
“These are not cheap buildings to build per square foot,” Dove said. “You have a lot of cost drivers that go into this.”