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For the better part of two decades, Wilson County commissioners have kicked the can down the road. It’s up to county residents to decide when their elected representatives have finally run out of road.
The need for a new county animal shelter’s been evident since at least April 2002, when animal advocates suggested merging the Wilson County Humane Society with the public animal control agency and constructing a shared facility, according to Times archives. That proposed partnership unraveled four months later.
Max and Della Fitz-Gerald then opened For the Love of Dogs, a nonprofit animal rescue group and private, no-kill shelter, to house stray dogs that would otherwise be euthanized due to lack of space at the small public shelter. A February 2004 newspaper story noted that the county’s inability to expand its shelter led the couple to act independently.
In May 2004, the Times reported that commissioners were considering a two-year plan to build a new shelter. Paraphrasing then-Health Director Louis Latour, we wrote that “the present shelter, built in 1978 close to an old landfill, is no longer adequate for the community.”
Pet privilege fees were first discussed in April 2005. From the very beginning, building a new shelter was the main justification. Using some of the money to fund a spay and neuter program and contribute to private shelters like For the Love of Dogs was also suggested.
A March 2006 story opened with a sentence that’s rung true for 13 years: “Building a new animal shelter is still not a priority on Wilson County government’s agenda.”
Talk about foreshadowing.
“The existing shelter has structural problems and has been settling on its foundation,” the Times reported in February 2007. “It also lacks the space Animal Enforcement needs to house many of the dogs and cats it brings in.”
That same month, Wilson County Animal Control became Animal Enforcement when commissioners shifted the division from the county health department to the sheriff’s office. As he took on additional responsibilities, then-Sheriff Wayne Gay became an advocate for a new shelter. He envisioned a public-private partnership with funding from the county, nonprofit groups and local businesses.
The 12-year-old story notes that Gay opened a nonprofit account to accept donations for the shelter and that Heritage Bank had donated $1,000 and pledged $4,000 more. What ever became of that money?
In January 2008, commissioners approved pet registration fees. It was plainly understood — and documented in letters and emails — that fees would be used to replace the aging animal shelter. But since the fee ordinance failed to specify the money’s use, it was spent rather than saved after fee collection began in January 2009.
The bait and switch came to light in February 2015, with the former sheriff correcting county officials who sought to cloud the issue by saying the pet fees were intended to boost animal control funding.
“Everyone knew we were not going to supplement the budget to operate animal control with a fee that just a certain number of people were paying and those being people with pets,” Gay told the Times four years ago.
In June 2016, commissioners finally started saving a portion of animal fee revenue to replace the shelter. Today, roughly half of fee proceeds go into the capital reserve fund. The other half is misspent without apology.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of pet fee collections in Wilson County. After a full decade, pet owners who’ve dutifully paid their bills have nothing to show for it. The same shelter a health director called inadequate in 2004 remains in use today. There is no construction timetable for a new facility.
County commissioners’ inaction is a public embarrassment. Though current board members can credibly blame their predecessors for the initial bait and switch, they inherited this mess and they’re responsible for cleaning it up. Isn’t it humiliating that Wilson County government can’t get an animal shelter built after nearly 17 years of discussion?
Residents can attend Monday’s Board of Commissioners meeting and tell the leaders they elect that further denials, deferrals, delays and excuses are unacceptable. Commissioners will convene at 7 p.m. Monday at the 2201 Miller Road administration building.
If no one chooses to speak during time reserved for public comment and if commissioners’ phones aren’t ringing, our board could get the false impression that county taxpayers are content to see this issue relegated to the back burner.
Don’t let your silence send that message. It’s time to stop kicking this can down the road.
CONTACT YOUR COMMISSIONERS
• Chairman Rob Boyette, District 5 — 6634 Governor Hunt Road, Lucama, NC 27851; 252-289-0762; email@example.com
• Vice Chairman Leslie Atkinson, District 1 — 101 Branch St., Elm City, NC 27822; 252-650-1046; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Sherry Lucas, District 2 — 2105 Sandy Creek Drive SW, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-291-9302; email@example.com
• JoAnne Daniels, District 3 — 406 Bruton St., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-363-3484; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Roger Lucas, District 4 — 4020 Wiggins Mill Road, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-6340; email@example.com
• Chris Hill, District 6 — 1128 Woodland Drive, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-8855; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Bill Blackman, District 7 — 4109 Stratford Drive N., Wilson, NC 27896; 252-243-1474; email@example.com