WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Our Opinion: Tell commissioners to stop misspending animal shelter fees

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Wilson County pet owners tired of their animal registration fees being misused have a chance to stand up and be counted.

County commissioners will hold their regular monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the county administration building, 2201 Miller Road. There will be time reserved for public comment when residents can address their elected representatives.

Anyone who dutifully pays his or her pet privilege fees should have plenty to say. The yearly charge was authorized in 2008 for the purpose of building a new public animal shelter. When fee collection began the following year, however, the money was deposited in the general fund and spent on county services.

Commissioners and county officials note that the ordinance establishing annual pet fees did not specifically earmark them for a new shelter — despite spoken and written assurances from the board’s then-chairman, vice chairman and stakeholders who helped develop the policy. A separate account for shelter savings wasn’t established until June 2016.

By then, the county board had grown accustomed to having pet fee revenue at its disposal and lacked the fiscal discipline to forfeit all the general fund’s ill-gotten gains. So commissioners voted to reserve a minimum of $60,000 in annual pet fee collections for the new shelter, allowing them to continue appropriating the rest for general use.

The $60,000 grew to $70,000 in 2017 and Commissioner Chris Hill raised the reserve to $85,000 last June. Those small steps in the right direction were too little, too late.

In 2017, pet fees generated $164,000 in revenue. Excuse us for not applauding commissioners’ restraint in only misusing half the money their predecessors promised for shelter construction. This is still a bait and switch that ought to provoke public outrage.

Commissioners might contend the $80,000-plus not being saved for the shelter goes instead to defray animal control costs, a related use. But money is fungible, and pet fee dollars in the Wilson County Animal Enforcement budget merely replace other revenue that would fund this division of the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office in the fees’ absence. Therefore, it’s an illegitimate increase in general services funding no matter how you slice it.

Using any portion of pet fees to pad unrestricted general fund revenue means those stuck with the tab are subsidizing county services like law enforcement, water and sewer, zoning and administration above and beyond the taxes they already pay.

Animal advocates helped develop the pet privilege fee program and were glad to chip in for a new shelter. While there was no referendum held or survey taken, the proposal had broad public support and was almost akin to a voluntary assessment. But pet owners never consented to a discriminatory tax for various and sundry county services.

Choosing not to save pet fee revenues for a new shelter after pledging to do so was unethical and immoral. Continuing the intentional misuse of animal privilege fees year after year compounds the mistake.

As we wrote in Tuesday’s Wishing for Wilson editorial — a Times tradition that highlights public policy priorities as New Year’s resolutions — this month marks a full decade since county officials began collecting pet fees. Ten years is more than enough time to build a new animal shelter. It’s time for commissioners to stop dragging their feet.

In 2019, commissioners must devote 100 percent of pet fee proceeds to shelter construction, but that’s not all. They should replace as much of the misappropriated money as it takes to fully fund the project and break ground before we start the year 2020.

If you’re tired of the shelter being shortchanged, there are two things you can do about it. You can attend Monday’s Wilson County Board of Commissioners meeting and tell your representatives you expect them to do the right thing. You can also call, write and email your commissioners using the contact information below.

When citizens speak out, local government listens. Pet owners have the collective power to move the animal shelter project off the board’s back burner — if only enough of them choose to exercise it.

CONTACT YOUR COMMISSIONERS

• Chairman Rob Boyette, District 5 — 6634 Governor Hunt Road, Lucama, NC 27851; 252-289-0762; rboyette@wilson-co.com 

• Vice Chairman Leslie Atkinson, District 1 — 101 Branch St., Elm City, NC 27822; 252-650-1046; latkinson@wilson-co.com 

• Sherry Lucas, District 2 — 2105 Sandy Creek Drive SW, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-291-9302; slucas@wilson-co.com

• JoAnne Daniels, District 3 — 406 Bruton St., Wilson, NC 27893; 252-363-3484; jdaniels@wilson-co.com 

• Roger Lucas, District 4 — 4020 Wiggins Mill Road, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-6340; rlucas@wilson-co.com 

• Chris Hill, District 6 — 1128 Woodland Drive, Wilson, NC 27893; 252-237-8855; ckhill@wilson-co.com 

• Bill Blackman, District 7 — 4109 Stratfiord Drive N., Wilson, NC 27896; 252-243-1474; bblackman@wilson-co.com

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