May 4 2016 12:12 AM

Chamber, others raise questions over cost of a new animal shelter

The front of the Ingham County Animal Control facility in Mason. The facility was built in 1971 and supporters say it can no longer function safely to continue to care for the county's stray and abandoned animals.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

The 45-year-old Ingham County Animal Control Shelter is a communicable disease’s heaven. The facility shares the same air, resulting in kennel cough. Cats are crowded into community rooms, allowing upper respiratory infections to spread. Dogs are housed across from each other, increasing the stress of an already stressful environment and reducing the animals’ immune systems.

“I am a firm believer in the connection between stress and immune function,” said John Dinon, the shelter’s director. “A shelter is by its nature a stressful environment, but this situation just adds to it.”

Nonetheless some business interests and residents are questioning whether the county should fund and build a new shelter.

County commissioners want a new millage to replace the animal shelter, built in 1971, and help fund additional customer service staff. They’ve placed it on the Aug. 2 ballot. But some residents and business interests are questioning if it’s all needed.

“I’m not sure there has been enough conversation about this,” said Steve Japinga, director of government relations with the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Japinga sent a letter to commissioners on April 19, the same day the millage proposal was approved for the Aug. 2 ballot. A county home valued at $150,000 (meaning its taxable value is $75,000) would pay $18 a year more in taxes, raising a projected $1.6 million a year for six years.

“Before the Board of Commissioners takes action on levying a new tax, LRCC challenges commissioners to first look at reprioritizing budget ‘needs’ rather than seeking budget ‘wants’ which involve asking taxpayers for more money out of their pockets,” he wrote. “Like most families and businesses that determine their annual budget, we must prioritize our needs and wants, which require difficult decisions. Our biggest responsibility is to the taxpayers and using their money efficiently and effectively.”

In that letter he asked commissioners to consider other options, such as part nering with “other interested partners.” The Capital Area Humane Society immediately came to mind, he said, when asked which groups might help defray the costs.

By law, county officials are obligated to handle dog licensing, cruelty and neglect investigations and to handle stray and lost animals. The county is not obligated to handle sheltering operations, which include adoptions of animals. That raises the question for Japinga of what has the county done to find partnerships, particularly with organizations like the Capital Area Humane Society?

“I don’t want to speak for Julia, but I have had some conversations and it is my opinion that they do not really have the capacity or the willingness to take another 3,000 animals,” Dison said of possible partnering with Capital Area Humane Society. The society contracts with both Clinton and Eaton counties to operate animal control and sheltering services. “That is a model that works and I definitely see the logic to it, but I don’t think that capacity exists in this community.”

But in an email, Julia Willson, the Humane Society’s president and CEO, said that was not true.

While many of the cats who enter the facility are sociable, some simply do not do well in community rooms and have to be kept in cages like this. The ICAC shelter in Mason has one large community room for cats, and a second, smaller one which volunteers and staff created out of a former mop closet.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

“CAHS has a strong collaborative relationship with many local animal control agencies. ICAC has demonstrated very little interest in collaborating with our organization,” she wrote. “It seems that there are many commissioners in this debate who want to state what CAHS will and won’t do for ICAC. CAHS could easily play a much larger role with ICAC animals, and we are happy to do so. To date I have not spoken with any of them.”

Willson and County Commissioner Penelope Tsernoglou will meet this week to discuss the proposed millage, as well as potential partnerships, both women said.

The Chamber’s perspective was echoed in a post on social media by Lansing City Councilwoman Jody Washington.

“Just my thoughts,” she wrote. “Now a millage for an animal shelter will be on the ballot. Seriously? I like animals as well as the next person, but when we have so many people hurting, a crumbling infrastructure etc. I just can’t support an animal shelter millage...Holy cow, at what point do we say enough is enough? I say, I just won’t support an animal shelter millage when there are many more pressing needs.”

Dinon said not only will the millage provide a new, expanded facility — going from about 8,000 square feet to a proposed 21,000 square feet — but it would also expand staffing and service delivery.

“In addition to building a new shelter, also gives us some operational money,” said Dinon. “ And that would allow us to hire enough staff to take better care of the animals and provide better services to the people who come here to the shelter.”

Currently the shelter is funded with about $1 million from the county general fund, and an additional $700,000 raised through fees, such as adoptions. In addition, the shelter’s community support organization provides funding for a volunteer coordinator as well as for some surgeries the county might not otherwise be able to afford. Donations given directly to the county for shelter operations are used to fund an animal cruelty investigator position, Dinon said.

The proposal would allow the shelter to extend its hours to include Sundays. Right now, the facility is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

“Not expanding services to the citizens would be a mistake,” he said.

To see a photo gallery on the shelter, see here.