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If Wilson County commissioners plan to keep their word and expedite the construction of a new animal shelter, it appears they haven’t relayed that message to County Manager Denise Stinagle.
The county’s $98.2 million proposed budget for fiscal year 2019-20, which Stinagle presented to commissioners on Monday, reserves just $100,000 for the shelter. That’s a far cry from the sum it will take to build a new facility. Added to the $330,000 saved from annual pet registration fees, the total balance in the shelter fund would be just above half the years-old $800,000 project estimate.
For a full 17 years, county commissioners have acknowledged the need to replace the Wilson County Animal Shelter on Airport Road with a larger and more modern facility. In 2002, concerned citizens pitched a public-private partnership that quickly unraveled. In 2004, the county health director called the existing shelter inadequate.
The same year, Max and Della Fitz-Gerald formed the nonprofit For the Love of Dogs and opened a private no-kill shelter that dwarfs the county’s complex. The Fitz-Geralds take in adoptable dogs that would otherwise be euthanized at the public shelter for no other reason than a shortage of space to house them.
In January 2009, the county began collecting yearly pet fees — ostensibly to fund shelter construction. Instead, the money was used to shore up the operating budget for animal control. It wasn’t until 2016 that commissioners began setting aside a portion of registration fee proceeds in a capital reserve account.
After a decade of county residents paying the “pet tax,” The Wilson Times called on Wilson County to hold up its end of the bargain. Our Jan. 1 “Wishing for Wilson” editorial advocated full funding and a start on construction within the 2019 calendar year. County residents took up the cause, writing and calling their commissioners and addressing the issue during public meetings.
The effort yielded encouraging words that conveyed a sense of urgency not reflected in the county manager’s budget proposal.
In a Feb. 2 guest column defending the county’s choice to spend rather than save pet fees, Board of Commissioners Chairman Rob Boyette wrote: “In 2019, we look forward to working on plans for a new animal shelter and the future EMS South Station.”
Shouldn’t “plans” include funding, Chairman Boyette?
“I believe the board as a whole is interested in moving on this,” Boyette added during a Feb. 4 meeting.
“Move on this thing just as quick as we can,” Commissioner Roger Lucas added when the board’s Animal Enforcement Committee met on Feb. 26.
Pardon us if we thought they meant sprinting toward the finish line, not inching along at a snail’s pace.
Overall, we give the manager’s budget high marks. Stinagle finagled a modest 3 percent raise for county employees, reserved $408,000 to upgrade the main library and completed project funding for the new EMS station in southern Wilson County while leaving the tax rate unchanged at 73 cents per $100 in property value. It’s a spending plan that patches a lot of leaks and still manages to save for a rainy day with a 16.87 percent fund balance allocation.
If commissioners had told Stinagle the shelter was a top priority, this skilled administrator would have found a way to pay for it. The inadequate funding more likely reflects their failure to communicate than any presumed stinginess on Stinagle’s part.
The good news is that a proposed budget is a first draft. Commissioners routinely make tweaks before voting on a spending plan, and it’s within their power to correct this oversight and fully fund animal shelter construction this year.
The bad news is inertia and indifference have a way of shifting shelter needs to a back burner that’s now sagging from years of overuse. History predicts shelter supporters will get the shaft. But Wilson County residents can change that.
Commissioners will discuss the budget at a work session planned for 6 p.m. Monday at the county administration building on Miller Road. Time for public comment is not scheduled during work session meetings, but you can still attend to hold them accountable. Your time to speak up will be during a June 4 public hearing on the county budget.
Call, write and email your county commissioners this weekend and ask them to fully fund the animal shelter. They gave you lip service three months ago. Now it’s time to put their money — correction: your money — where their mouth is.
CONTACT YOUR COMMISSIONERS
• Chairman Rob Boyette, District 5 — 6634 Governor Hunt Road, Lucama, NC 27851; 252-289-0762; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Vice Chairman Leslie Atkinson, District 1 — 101 Branch St., Elm City, NC 27822; 252-650-1046; email@example.com
• Sherry Lucas, District 2 — 2105 Sandy Creek Drive SW, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-291-9302; firstname.lastname@example.org
• JoAnne Daniels, District 3 — 406 Bruton St., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-363-3484; email@example.com
• Roger Lucas, District 4 — 4020 Wiggins Mill Road, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-6340; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Chris Hill, District 6 — 1128 Woodland Drive, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-8855; email@example.com
• Bill Blackman, District 7 — 4109 Stratfiord Drive N., Wilson, NC 27896; 252-243-1474; firstname.lastname@example.org