The Independence City Council potentially derailed a plan to operate a new animal shelter in the city.
On Monday, December 17, it voted 6–1 to delay making a decision on an agreement to pay Jackson County to subcontract with Great Plains SPCA to operate a new $5.3 million shelter.
Council members and residents raised concerns about several parts of the deal, including spaying and neutering costs, the jobs of 10 current part-time shelter employees and the aftermath of the five-year contract, according to The Examiner. On January 14, the Council is scheduled to hold a study session to discuss the concerns.
The 27,000-square-foot shelter, with a lodge-style look of wood and stone accents and a hunter-green roof, was slated to open in August 2012 and replace the aging Independence Animal Shelter. More than a year ago, volunteers at the shelter publicly complained about the treatment of animals and the shelter's management.
The mostly anonymous volunteers criticized then-shelter manager Aimee Wells, circulated photos of dogs with mange, and retold stories of animals suffering. A Pitch story ("Dog Days," August 11, 2011) revealed the shelter's less-than-ideal conditions. The hot and dank building was crowded and lacked air conditioning. Wells and Larry Jones, director of the Independence Health Department, said the staff did its best to run the shelter with limited resources. They stressed that change was coming with the new Jackson County shelter set to open in 2012.
A 2009 contract between Independence and Jackson County called for the county to pay for the shelter's construction and for the city to be responsible for operating it for 30 years. A political impasse this fall delayed the opening.
Jackson County Legislator Dennis Waits, a shelter proponent, argued that the city hadn't budgeted for a no-kill shelter (meaning that 10 percent or less of the animals are euthanized). The shelter has sat empty for months while Jackson County and Independence negotiated who would operate it.
The two sides finally announced a tentative deal in the first week of December in which Independence would contract with Jackson County to run the shelter, and the county would subcontract the work to Great Plains SPCA. For the first two years, Independence would pay Great Plains $435,000 a year to run the facility, then $515,000 in each of the final three years of the deal. The shelter would have opened January 1 under the arrangement.
Before the Independence City Council delayed the deal, Great Plains SPCA CEO and Executive Director Courtney Thomas was excited about the nonprofit potentially taking over the shelter.
"The shelter is four times the size of the existing shelter," Thomas told The Pitch. "There's a greater opportunity to have a positive impact on the animals of Jackson County and beyond."
The new facility has easier-to-clean cages and an HVAC system that circulates fresh air several times an hour to reduce the spread of airborne diseases. In addition, the shelter has five large outdoor play areas, a shop, and a veterinary area that Thomas said could host college classes.
The cosmetic changes are also noticeable. For instance, cages have been replaced with glass doors.
"We've done away with that jail-like look that is pretty common in many shelters," Thomas explained. "[We] really wanted to focus on showcasing the animals in a very positive way, moving away from the stigma that the shelter is a bad place."
No-kill shelters are expensive ventures, not only for the city and the county but also for Great Plains SPCA.
"The reality is, we could convert Kansas City to a no-kill community overnight with the increased capacity at the Independence facility," Thomas said. "But it takes money to do that. It's going to cost us just over $1.3 million to run this facility."
If the Independence Council agrees to the deal, Great Plains will have to fill the $865,000 gap through donations. Thomas said the cost is worth moving the metro to no-kill.
"We're taking this on at a huge financial risk and burden to our organization because we do believe it's possible," Thomas said, "and we do believe that the community will get behind us and support this, and we want to see this happen."
Great Plains' running the Independence shelter would signal another increase in its profile among animal-shelter and animal-adoption nonprofits.
On December 15, Great Plains opened a new 10,000-square-foot shelter in Merriam, replacing the group's facility from the 1960s. Thomas said the Merriam facility was paid for by a single "donor family that wanted to honor the legacy of their past pets."
Meanwhile, the delay on the Independence shelter means that it will sit empty for at least another month. The Independence City Council considers it again on January 22.