WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Our Opinion | Wishing for Wilson: New year must lead to new animal shelter

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We have a New Year’s resolution for the Wilson County Board of Commissioners, but it’s ultimately up to you whether it’s a pledge our governing body will keep.

January 2019 marks a full decade since county commissioners began charging pet owners a yearly animal registration fee in order to replace the aging Wilson County Animal Shelter. If officials had stuck to their word, the $800,000 project would have been fully funded in 2014. Yet 10 years after the first bills went out, there’s no new shelter or new construction site. There isn’t even a project timetable.

That’s because the county board pulled a bait and switch, taking money intended for shelter savings and diverting it to the general fund, where it was commingled with property tax revenues and spent. The ordinance adopted in 2008, a year before collections began, doesn’t specify how the money would be used. But stakeholders who helped develop the pet fee have maintained that its purpose was widely understood.

“We’re playing with words,” former sheriff Wayne Gay told The Wilson Times in February 2015. “When I walked out of the room along with the others that were in the room, we felt like we had accomplished what we set out to do — we’ve established a fee that was going toward building a new shelter.”

Roger Lucas is the only current commissioner who served on the 2008 board, and he voted to assess pet fees “for the sole intent and purpose of these monies going to build a new shelter,” he wrote in an email four years after casting his vote.

While the county’s animal fee ordinance left wiggle room, a 2008 letter to For the Love of Dogs owner Max Fitz-Gerald signed by then-commissioners Frank Emory and Bobby Sid Boyette, who were chairman and vice chairman of the board, was crystal clear: “These fees will be used to support the development of the shelter.”

Former county commissioners misled their constituents. And the current board’s efforts to make amends have been lackadaisical at best.

In June 2016, the county established a capital reserve fund for a new animal shelter. Yet commissioners only chose to designate about half of annual pet fee proceeds for that piggy bank. The remainder is still being spent on county services, which constitutes a discriminatory tax on pet owners. You shouldn’t be paying more for law enforcement or water and sewer service than your neighbor simply because you have a dog or cat.

We’ve been careful to avoid criticizing current commissioners for their predecessors’ mistakes. Their grace period has expired. It’s time for them to own this mess and clean it up once and for all.

That’s why we’re devoting the entirety of our 2019 “Wishing for Wilson” editorial — a New Year’s tradition begun by Times matriarch Elizabeth Gold Swindell — to the pet fee fiasco. We typically include several recommendations for local leaders written as New Year’s resolutions. This year, commissioners have our full attention. Do they have yours?

Public indifference and a lack of citizen engagement have allowed this sore to fester. We’re not sure why peeved pet owners aren’t lining up to speak during the portion of county board meetings reserved for public comment. Commissioners must right this wrong, but it will likely take sustained advocacy from their constituents to spur them to action.

Call, write and email your commissioners. Tell them it’s high past time to devote 100 percent of pet fee collections to the capital reserve fund and replace some of the misappropriated money from years past. Construction on a new Wilson County Animal Shelter must begin before we ring in 2020.

If you think that’s unrealistic, consider that just last month, your Board of Commissioners agreed to spend more than $211,000 in unbudgeted funds to help repave runways and taxiways at the Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport. When commissioners are sufficiently motivated to spend money, they always manage to find it.

CONTACT YOUR COMMISSIONERS

The men and women listed below represent you on the Wilson County Board of Commissioners. Let them know you expect them to do the right thing and build the new animal shelter their predecessors promised.

• 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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