Unicoi County Animal Shelter Director Jessica Blevins with some pets housed at the shelter. (Lee Talbert/Press Photo Editor)
ERWIN — In the lobby of the Unicoi County Animal Shelter, a quartet of kittens up for adoption were nestled together in a cage, sleeping undisturbed through the occasional phone call and visitor.
The peaceful scene contradicted the mood just across the shelter’s front counter, where shelter employees and volunteers were going about their daily duties with uncertainty.
On Monday, the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted that the town would not contribute to the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board’s budget for the upcoming 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Through this move, the town would revert back to operating its own shelter, as it did before the current county shelter opened in 2008.
Blevins said she feels the county shelter offers resources the Erwin shelter cannot. The Erwin shelter, for the time being, is planned to be located in the town’s former shelter adjacent to the county facility.
“The scariest thing is this is even a consideration in this day and time, knowing what we know, progressing the way we’ve progressed, and this is still in someone’s thought process that this can become a reality again and we’ll just say ‘we’ll forget everything we’ve learned in the last 20 years,’ ” she said.
As part of an interlocal agreement enacted in 2006, each of Unicoi County’s three governmental bodies — the county and the towns of Erwin and Unicoi — were to contribute annually to the Unicoi County Animal Welfare Board. Blevins said the welfare board was requesting around $23,300 from each municipality in the upcoming fiscal year. Those involved with the shelter feel the loss of this funding from Erwin could threaten the shelter’s operations.
The Animal Welfare Board met in an emergency work session Thursday morning. While no official action was taken, members of the board discussed the county shelter’s next steps. JoAnn Tatro, who represents the county Humane Society on the board, said the board was in agreement that those involved with the shelter must first educate members of the public and local officials on what resources and services are offered at the county shelter.
“I think the first step, we all agreed, was to get knowledge out there to the citizens of what the shelter does and to get knowledge to the BMA members, to get them knowledge so they can make a good decision,” Tatro said.
Board members are also taking a preliminary look at cuts that can be made at the shelter to address the funding it will not receive from the town. The board is also seeking legal advice on the interlocal agreement.
Blevins said what is certain is that support for the county’s shelter has been overwhelming over the past week. She said the shelter has received “nonstop” phone calls, emails and posts to its Facebook page from people voicing their support.
“We’ve had a lot of citizens start pledging ‘I’ll donate $100 every year to help keep the shelter running,’ things like that,” Blevins said. “Ultimately, that’s what’s going to keep us running is donations, but we’ve had a lot of people start to offer pledges, and that’ll be a program we start where maybe July every year, somebody pledges to donate to help keep us running.”
Blevins said she has not heard from anyone with the town of Erwin since Monday’s vote.
Unicoi County Humane Society President Ellen Reinhardt said her organization’s primary goal several years ago was to see the construction of a countywide animal shelter.
“That was the Humane Society’s objective from day one, and we also worked some on educating the public, doing some spay and neuter funding and things like that, and then when the shelter came together, we tried to do a little more of that than we had been doing,” Reinhardt said. “It was difficult not having a location. It sort of limited what we could do in a lot of ways. We need the shelter to stay.”
The county Humane Society voted Thursday to purchase 200 yard signs that state “We want the shelter, not a pound.” Reinhardt said these signs should be ready Wednesday and available to Erwin residents and businesses interested in showing support for the county’s shelter.
The Humane Society is planning to sponsor a public information forum that will be held this week. A time, date and location have not yet been confirmed, but organizers are hoping to hold the forum Thursday. Tatro said local governmental officials will be invited to the forum, and information on the county’s shelter will be distributed to those who attend.
Greeneville resident Teressa Anderson is a volunteer with the county shelter’s foster program and is a shelter supporter. In a letter she sent to Erwin officials urging them to reconsider their decision, Anderson said she feels Erwin residents would lose many benefits of the county shelter, including rabies clinics, the shelter’s low-cost spay and neuter program, adoption resources and the after-hours drop box.
“The recent decision to pull funding from the Unicoi County Animal Shelter is completely appalling,” Anderson wrote. “This is truly a step backward in animal welfare and it lacks the compassion of human decency.”
Another supporter of the county shelter is Jonesborough resident Staci Holland, who previously adopted her dog from the Unicoi County shelter, and likened the adoption application to a “job application.”
“It was very serious,” she said of the adoption process. “Right there, that told me that I was making the right decision by adopting my pet from there because, knowing they’re as thorough as they are making sure those animals end up in the right families and the right homes, that was just a plus.”
Holland has started an online petition on the website change. org urging the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen to reconsider its decision. It can be found at http://chn.ge/18Ldgzo? . Each time someone signs the petition, each member of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen receives an email notifying them of the signature, Holland said.
Holland said she is not seeking a minimum number of signatures on the petition and there is no deadline. The petition was started Wednesday evening and, as of Saturday afternoon, had around 273 signatures.
“I just created it to see how much community support we could achieve,” Holland said.
The petition can be accessed at www.change.org/petitions/town-of-erwin-officials-continue? funding-for-unicoi-county-animal-shelter-2 .
When contacted for comment Friday, Erwin Town Recorder Randy Trivette said Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley would comment on the animal shelter situation Monday.