Bottom breaks a split vote on Humane Society agreement

Published 1:12 pm Saturday, September 9, 2023

Citizens advisory committee formed in response to animal issues

By Fiona Morgan

After long deliberations and a split vote, the Fiscal Court passed a new agreement with the Danville Boyle County Humane Society at a special called meeting August 29.

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Magistrates Tom Ellis, Paula Bodner and Barry Harmon voted no on the final agreement. Magistrate Jamey Gay voted yes; and Jason Cullen and Steve Sleeper reluctantly voted yes, with the understanding that the agreement is for one year and will be reviewed quarterly.

Judge-Executive Trille Bottom broke the tie with a yes vote. Gay and Bottom were the most optimistic about the new agreement, saying they believe they can start working better with the Humane Society.

Other magistrates were concerned about some language that could allow the HS to turn away housing animals at their facility. Some magistrates even discussed the possibility of severing the agreement between Animal Control and the HS, and moving AC into a new building.

The agreement is a guideline for collaboration between Boyle County Animal Control and the Humane Society, which operate in the same building. Animal Control exists to protect public health and safety, ensure the humane treatment of animals by law, and to bring in sick and injured animals, or animals running at large. The Humane Society focuses on sheltering, adoptions, community education, and spay/neuter programs.

The new agreement comes after eight months of discussions and about 12 drafts of the agreement, according to magistrates, who also said they began preliminary discussions two or three years ago.

The previous agreement with the Humane Society had been a general document that was in place for the past 40 to 50 years. All parties agreed that it was time for updating, in order to clearly define roles and responsibilities.

In the midst of discussions, several local residents brought concerns to the court about HS and AC operations. In a Fiscal Court meeting on July 11, residents recounted experiences when they brought sick and injured animals to Boyle County Animal Control and the Humane Society and were turned away.

The Advocate-Messenger published an article about those complaints, which can be read here.

Part of what led to those concerns is that the Humane Society changed their operating procedures in 2019 to reduce euthanasia at the shelter. They started taking in less animals, and focused more on helping people keep their pets. They’re also utilizing Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return procedures, in which they vaccinate stray cats then put them back in their outdoor habitat.

While the Humane Society has dramatically reduced euthanasia numbers, residents and magistrates are still concerned about there being less animals taken by the HS, and in turn, more animals roaming the county that have less chance of being adopted or cared for.

These issues further informed the magistrates’ opinions on language in the new HS agreement. They discussed changes to the draft agreement at the Aug. 22 fiscal court meeting with HS Board Member Laura Pritchard.

She said the HS is willing to work with the court to resolve those concerns, saying, “We are an imperfect organization run by one staff member, one part time staff member, and a lot of volunteers. There are situations we could’ve handled better … we’re committed to working with you all on that.”

Pritchard said in order to keep euthanasia levels low, as well as have less stray dogs and cats, everyone in the county needs to play a part.

“This is not just a partnership with the county and Humane Society; it’s the county, Humane Society, and all the rescue efforts in the entire community will have to work together to solve this problem,” Pritchard said.

Another concern from residents is that AC has recently refused to take some sick and injured animals, which Gay said they are working to resolve.

Since the HS and Animal Control operate in the same building, the new policies at the HS have caused confusion for AC officers. Gay and Sleeper said they have been working to better train officers on correct procedures. Gay said the court needs to accept some of the blame for a lack of oversight on AC operations.

“A lot of these issues have been our issues as well, because of a lack of oversight and control and training over ACOs, which we are addressing and we’re taking a lot of action on that,” Gay said in the Aug. 22 meeting. “I think we’re getting close to getting a better situation.”

Disagreements on the agreement

Bottom had set a deadline of August 31 to pass or reject the new agreement. A smaller group consisting of Bottom, County Administrator Julie Wagner, magistrates on the Animal Control Committee Jamey Gay and Steve Sleeper, and Humane Society board members George Coomer and Fizzy Ramsey, had discussed previous drafts of the agreement.

At the end of July, they brought a draft to the rest of the HS board, who wanted to make additional revisions. The court discussed those proposed changes at their Aug. 22 meeting, which were mostly small wording changes.

Pritchard and the court came to an agreement on all but one of the revisions. The only one they still disagreed on was a section under ‘Scope of Services’ for the Humane Society.

The section states that the HS will “Provide adequate working space for ACO’s and Shelter Director, including a minimum of eight crates that will be used for animals accepted by the ACO’s,” – a draft revision added to this sentence: “two isolation crates, cat spaces in the treatment room and any other necessary kennels to house animals for which BCAC has assumed custody;” – and the HS board wanted to add to this sentence: “at the discretion of Boyle County Humane Society.”

Pritchard said the HS board wanted to add that section to be able to avoid overcrowding at their facility. Their concern is that if they take in too many animals, the HS could get back to a spot where they’re euthanizing animals from having a lack of space and resources.

“What we’re asking for is a conversation if it exceeds that level of intake,” Pritchard said. “We want to work with you.”

Ellis explained that the county has a statutory obligation to provide kennels for animals, and disagreed that the HS should have discretion on housing additional animals if AC gets an influx of animals. Magistrates wanted to strike out “at the discretion of Boyle County Humane Society,” and stop the sentence at “assumed custody.”

Pritchard said the AC statutes don’t say they need to collaborate with HS to house all their animals. But magistrates said they don’t want to get in a situation where they have to find somewhere else to put AC animals, especially since many other surrounding counties have full animal shelters.

“We do not want to fill the kennels, but if the need arises, we want to have the availability to do that,” Cullen said.

Pritchard brought the issue back to the HS board in a special called meeting. The board then sent the court alternate language for that section, which they reviewed at the court’s Aug. 29 meeting.

To replace “at the discretion of Boyle County Humane Society,” their alternate language at the end of that section states: “In the event of extraordinary circumstances such as hoarding, abuse, etc. which would require the immediate increase in kennel space to receive animals, the Humane Society may make additional kennels available on the puppy hall once all other options have been exhausted through the coordination and partnership between the Humane Society and Animal Control. Under no circumstance will any animal with unknown vaccination or veterinary status be co-mingled with healthy adoptable animals on the adoption board.”

Bottom and Gay were satisfied with the new language.

“I think the new language shows more cooperation and partnership from the Humane Society by allowing the additional space to be used, should we need it,” Bottom said.

However, Ellis said he had problems with the words “may” and “etc.” in the new language. He believes the wording implies that the Humane Society would have the control to define what circumstances require more kennel space. He said the word “may” instead of “shall” still doesn’t require that the HS provide more kennel space if needed.

“They would remain in total control in defining extraordinary circumstances, and using the ‘may vs. shall’ clause, nothing in between could be acceptable, so I absolutely could not vote for the [agreement],” Ellis said.

Gay said that those extraordinary circumstances are a rare occurrence, and they should keep in mind a bigger picture.

“This is a rare thing; we really need to solidify our relationship and partnership with the Humane Society,” Gay said. “I don’t think we need to be irrational about one little nuance and a word here that is more the exception.”

Bottom said they need to be able to have faith in the partnership, that if those extraordinary circumstances happen, that the HS will work with AC.

Cullen, Sleeper and Bodner said they don’t believe the Fiscal Court and HS are working together well, and mentioned the idea of building their own space for Animal Control. Ellis said he believes the HS is not taking as many cats and large dogs, and they should have some other way to care for those animals.

Sleeper, who’s on the court’s Animal Control Committee, said that while the HS has decreased euthanasia and increased community outreach, there are other aspects of caring for animals that can’t be measured or aren’t included in their metrics.

“I don’t know that it’s been serving the county well,” Sleeper said. “The data never tells the whole story; when you’re confronted with numerous anecdotal experiences that are to the contrary of the data, that has to be taken into account as well, that’s part of the story.”

The data can be looked at through two lenses. For example, the number of cats that have gone through TNVR are back outside roaming the county and have not been adopted.

Sleeper said he hopes the agreement can be what’s best for animal welfare, and for the people who care for stray animals at their own expense.

“I don’t think we should make this decision based on what is convenient, even though we’ve been working on it for months and it’s been very exasperating to do so,” Sleeper said. “I don’t think it should be because of a traditional relationship, as good or bad as that may be.”

However, since the agreement is for one year and is to be reviewed quarterly, Sleeper and Cullen voted to pass the agreement so they could have more time to decide if AC needs a place of their own.

Cullen said if things have not gotten better in three months, they will have time to find possible land, and to talk with the new Citizens Advisory Committee about what could be done differently.

“Wholeheartedly, I think we need our own space,” Cullen said. “But we do not have anything set up right now to handle the issues that will come if we sever an agreement; and while I do not like everything about this agreement, we need to have things better in place. We can’t just pull the rug out and expect everything to fall in perfect place, it’s a very risky endeavor.”

Sleeper said other problems have come from not currently having a shelter director. Accepting the agreement gives them time to find a shelter director and resolve some issues.

Gay said he believes it would be a waste of taxpayer money to have to buy land, build a new Animal Control building, buy new equipment, etc., which could cost millions of dollars. He said they should all do their best to work together and keep the agreement in place.

To hear more discussions about other draft revisions that they made, people can go to the Boyle County Media YouTube page, and watch the video “Boyle County Fiscal Court Meeting – August 22, 2023.”

Citizens Advisory Committee formed

The court passed a motion at the Aug. 22 meeting to form a Citizens Advisory Committee that will inform the court about animal issues.

Members are volunteers and will serve in an advisory role only, which has no binding control over the court. Sleeper said the committee’s formation is in response to the issues recently brought up about the HS and AC refusing animals. He said they would choose members based on the different things they do to help animals in the county.

“The purpose would be to educate us, communicate to us what’s going on and how we can do things better; as well as it would serve as a committee that would help network the various rescue operations and to individuals and groups who are on the front line working to make animal welfare in our county much better,” Sleeper said.

The group is subject to open meeting statutes, which means that anyone from the public is welcome to attend meetings. The Advisory Committee had their first meeting on Aug. 28 at 6:30 p.m. in the Fiscal Court Room.