WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Our Opinion: Commissioners come through for constituents, pets

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Wilson County, your commissioners have heard you loud and clear.

After a decade of delays, the Wilson County Board of Commissioners has committed to building a new public animal shelter to replace the deteriorating facility on Airport Drive. In consecutive meetings this week, elected officials carried out the will of their constituents with unanimous votes for progress.

On Monday, commissioners designated a parcel of county-owned land on N.C. 42 East as the new shelter’s location and directed County Manager Denise Stinagle to develop site plans. The following day, they voted to add $370,000 to a capital reserve fund for the project, bringing its balance to $800,000. That figure matches a shelter estimate that’s at least three years old, and while total construction costs could exceed that amount, it signals that ground could be broken this year.

If it weren’t for a state regulator’s impeccable timing, a public records request and a groundswell of citizen advocacy, it’s likely the new shelter would remain on the board’s back burner.

On May 13, Stinagle presented her $98.2-million proposed budget to county commissioners. The spending plan included $100,000 in shelter savings, which would have taken the account balance to just $430,000.

Earlier that same day, county leaders received a report from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services showing that the current animal shelter had flunked an April 23 inspection. In alarming language, inspector Lisa Carlson listed a litany of structural defects. Sheriff Calvin Woodard, whose office staffs the shelter and operates Wilson County Animal Enforcement, warned Stinagle the state could close the facility down.

The Wilson Times learned of the failed state inspection roughly a week later after asking for copies of county commissioners’ and top administrators’ emails under the N.C. Public Records Act. The report hadn’t yet been publicly released. Our coverage of Carlson’s findings sparked outrage among Wilson County residents, particularly pet owners who paid animal registration fees that took effect in 2009 and were largely intended to fund a new shelter.

Taxpayers phoned and emailed their commissioners, pleading for a replacement shelter. We published a front-page editorial — believed to be the first in this newspaper’s 123-year history — calling on the board to fully fund the new shelter in the 2019-20 budget.

Under heightened public scrutiny, commissioners came through. Had Carlson not dropped in for a surprise late-April inspection and had the Times not discovered and published her report before a scheduled public hearing on the county budget, the funding picture would look much different.

County officials made long-legged strides toward fulfilling their predecessors’ promise and restoring residents’ trust in their elected representatives. Board Chairman Rob Boyette set the tone with Monday’s bid to formalize the shelter site. Commissioner Chris Hill shared the mantle of leadership Tuesday, making the motion to add unspent revenue from the 2018-19 budget to the animal shelter savings account.

Hill has distinguished himself for his responsiveness and accessibility. When we wrote in Saturday’s editorial that he’d only replied to one constituent email about the animal shelter, citing the public records we’d received, Hill contacted the Times and provided evidence to the contrary. County staff had neglected to retrieve messages from commissioners’ personal email accounts. A general contractor by trade, Hill replied to concerned citizens promptly and cordially using his business email address.

He’s since responded to reader comments on WilsonTimes.com and the Times’ Facebook page, providing his cellphone number to anyone with questions about the animal shelter project. Chris Hill truly believes in being accountable to the people he serves, and we applaud his constituent outreach.

Joining Boyette and Hill, Commissioners Leslie Atkinson, Sherry Lucas, JoAnne Daniels, Roger Lucas and Bill Blackman delivered for the residents in their respective districts this week. This board inherited the misspent pet fees and stagnant shelter plans from previous commissioners. While the mess wasn’t of their making, these county officials have begun working in earnest to clean it up.

The new Wilson County Animal Shelter is expected to triple the current building’s capacity of 46 dogs and 48 cats. That should greatly reduce if not eliminate the need to euthanize strays to make room for more. Likewise, a modern shelter with more room for visitors and volunteers to interact with the dogs and cats in its care can only help increase adoptions.

A new day is dawning for animal control in Wilson County. More must be done, and quickly, but we thank our commissioners for this week’s running start.

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