About 50 concerned citizens gathered Tuesday night at the Wilson County Courthouse to speak out about proposed changes in the animal tax before the Animal Control Committee.
A $2 domestic animal tax was implemented in 1980 by county voters and is a major source of revenue for locally based organization New Leash on Life.
The 1980 referendum passed was for the organization’s use in “animal control,” but at the time the county didn’t operate an animal control department until 2003.
The proposed resolution will be considered in tandem with another resolution that would levy a $5 domestic animal fee due when pet owners obtain vaccinations for their animals.
Of that fee, 5 percent would go to the county clerk’s office for processing costs and the remainder would go to an operating fund for the county’s animal control department.
At its last meeting, the Wilson County Commission deferred vote on the resolutions so Tuesday’s public forum could be held. The commission is expected to take up the matter again when it meets Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. at the courthouse.
Employees and volunteers representing both New Leash on Life and Wilson County Animal Control spoke Tuesday about the proposed changes in funding. Several gave passionate pleas to the committee about which entity deserved it more.
“As a citizen of Wilson County, not necessarily as the director, I feel like we need to fund animal control through New Leash on Life,” said executive director Amy Haverstick. “Animal control is a community issue. We get called out a lot. Our total budget is $270,000 and we have seven full-time employees.”
But a source of contention with some committee members appeared to be the animals New Leash on Life helps in other counties.
“We rescue between 315-400 Wilson County-specific animals per year,” Haverstick said. “We will look outside the county to fill the cages. We might pull from other rescue groups. We all network. I'm going to get that animal, adopt it out and get the adoption fee. We get animals in from lots of places. We don't get any other government money.”
Haverstick said she would likely have to cut two positions if the $35,000 New Leash on Life receives from Wilson County is diverted to animal control.
Commissioner Jerry McFarland asked Haverstick how many animals adopted stay in Wilson County.
“I would say most of our adoptions probably do,” Haverstick said. “There are some people who see our website and fall in love with an animal and drive in and adopt it.”
Sandra Billington, a volunteer dog trainer at New Leash on Life, spoke in favor of the nonprofit organization keeping its funding.
“They not only take animal surrenders, but people often leave animals at their doorstep,” Billington said. “The paid staff is really doing three times the work of a normal employee. If not for the funding they get, they would have a really hard time doing what they do.”
“They do a valuable service of controlling the cat population. They clip the ears of cats that are fixed, so they know they are fixed.”
New Leash on Life volunteer Pam Black also defended the organization.
“This could be devastating for us if we lose these funds. We have to basically beg, borrow and almost steal to get the funding we do get,” Black said.
Following several other passionate pleas from New Leash on Life volunteers, Wilson County Animal Control director Mary Scruggs offered her own tear-filled plea to the committee.
“I left New Leash on Life because I probably euthanized 100 dogs a week, and it hurt me,” Scruggs said. “I'm glad they don't do it anymore. I’ve worked with New Leash on Life, Lebanon Animal Control and now I work with Wilson County Animal Control.
“When I came here, I had to kill them, and I'm the bad guy. I need help. We are getting burnt out. Every now and then I go out and get a drink because I can't take it anymore. We are getting more and more and more dogs in.
“I could use more help. I need time to get away and not have to clean and euthanize and do everything.”
Scruggs said animal control operates on a $180,000 annual budget, most of which is used to pay salaries.
“My people last year work on comp time. They go out at night. We keep up with the person who gets bit. Like I said, we need more people because we are getting burned out,” Scruggs said.
Commissioner Wendell Marlowe, chairman of the Animal Control Committee, appeared to support the proposed changes to the animal tax.
“New Leash on Life does provide a valuable service to Wilson County,” Marlowe said. “The fact of the matter is they do provide, in a round about way, services for other counties without compensation.
“Services may have to be cut back, but New Leash on Life will survive no matter what happens at the next county commission meeting. They may not operate at the same level, but New Leash on Life will survive.
“There's not another organization that does what [New Leash on Life does]. There's not another organization that does what [animal control does]. What I was saying was that there are other organizations in Wilson County that provide services that are considered animal control.
“What we are saying is that New Leash on Life shouldn't be the only organization that gets animal tax dollars.”
Former Commissioner Joy Bishop questioned whether a majority of the commission or 13 votes would be enough to approve the resolutions or whether two-thirds or 17 votes would be required.
County attorney Mike Jennings said he would need to look into the requirement further and expected to have an answer before the commission meets again.