Our Opinion: County must fund new animal shelter in this year’s budget

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County commissioners can hear you — they just aren’t listening.

That’s the only conclusion we can reach following a Wilson Times audit of constituent email contact with the Wilson County Board of Commissioners between Jan. 1 and May 20 regarding the county’s failure to build a new animal shelter after 10 years of collecting pet registration fees that were supposed to support construction costs.

Three of the seven commissioners — Chairman Rob Boyette, Sherry Lucas and JoAnne Daniels — did not reply to any of the nine emails they received from concerned residents, according to copies of the messages provided to the Times in response to a public records request.

Commissioner Roger Lucas was the most responsive, answering five of his 11 emails about the shelter. Vice Chairman Leslie Atkinson replied to three of the nine he received. Bill Blackman responded to one of a dozen messages.

CLARIFICATION, May 31, 11:07 p.m. 
Records provided to The Wilson Times indicated Commissioner Chris Hill had only replied to one email, but Hill said he replied to additional emails from a personal email address rather than his county-issued account. Emails involving public business are public records regardless of the accounts from which they originate. Hill said he has replied to every constituent email he's received regarding the animal shelter. 

County commissioners are your elected representatives. They’re supposed to work for you. How many people reading this could ignore most or all of their bosses’ emails and remain employed?

The Wilson County Animal Shelter on Airport Drive is sinking. That’s not a metaphor; the facility is buckling and settling into the ground. Inspection reports from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Animal Welfare Section from February 2007 to last month show rapid deterioration.

Officials have set aside roughly $330,000 to replace the shelter. County Manager Denise Stinagle’s 2019-20 proposed budget would add $100,000. That simply isn’t good enough. We don’t have another 10 years — or even another two or three — to wait. State inspectors are liable to shut the current shelter down long before then.

As detailed in today’s story from county government reporter Olivia Neeley, county staffers are working on replacement plans. But without action from commissioners, those plans will collect dust.

Commissioners are holding back-to-back meetings Monday and Tuesday before approving the 2019-20 budget. During that time, the board can make adjustments to the county manager’s recommended spending plan. We call on commissioners to do two things:

First, appropriate a minimum of $500,000 for the new animal shelter, which would increase the project’s account balance to $830,000. While county staff doesn’t have current construction estimates, rough figures from previous years suggest the shelter will cost at least that much.

Next, make a public commitment to breaking ground on the new building before year’s end and releasing a full timeline for site prep, construction and occupation of the new shelter.

Commissioners may drag their feet, citing the need to wait for cost figures before setting more money aside. While the board can pass a budget amendment to authorize the full expense at any time, history has shown us that a delay is tantamount to a denial.

If the money isn’t budgeted in this fiscal year’s spending plan, we have no confidence these commissioners will take up the issue before next June.

This board has lost its credibility on animal control issues and must act swiftly to regain public trust. Anything short of a firm commitment to full funding this fiscal year and a 2019 construction start is a slap in county taxpayers’ face.

Commissioners’ regular monthly meeting is 7 p.m. Monday at the county administration building on Miller Road. A public hearing on the 2019-20 budget will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Wilson County Agricultural Center.

If you’re in attendance at these meetings, you can tell your elected representatives to build the shelter this year. Speaking at the podium during time reserved for public comment may be the best way to get your message across. Don’t count on an answer to your email.