At its most recent meeting the commission agreed to have the Cheaha Regional Humane Society take over the county’s Animal Control Center. The pending contract approval comes on the heels of most of the former Animal Control Advisory Board resigning earlier this month due to the possibility of the county contracting with an outside organization.
County Commissioner J.D. Hess said while the contract isn’t finished, the group said it could eliminate most of the county’s cost to operate the facility in three years.
“They have a lot of influential people backing them,” Hess said. “Being a nonprofit they can can get a lot of grants that we can’t.”
Jane Cunningham, president of the Humane Society, said today the group was formed by commissioners and community members who were concerned with the way the Animal Control Advisory Board had been running the facility, including adding adoption fees for rescuers.
Cunningham said the organization consists of herself and Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh, among others, and has an advisory board that includes Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson and Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge. Attempts to reach McVeigh, Amerson and Partridge were unsuccessful today.
Anniston attorney Tom Wright, a member of the organization, said the group was born out of the frustration of several community members upset about what they saw as a lack of transparency from the former county-appointed Animal Control Advisory Board members.
“My biggest concern was that it seemed like it had become more of a hindrance to adopt and rescue animals,” said Wright, referring to an adoption fee imposed by the former board. “I felt like it should have been made easier to rescue animals, which is the point.”
John Wippler, who resigned from the Animal Control board earlier this month, said the county was guilty of “dirty politics” by agreeing to a pending contract with the society, which he said was put together in secret, “backroom meetings.” Wippler today questioned whether the commission was breaking state bid laws by approving a contract with the group without advertising or accepting bids.
Commission Chairman Rudy Abbott and County Administrator Ken Joiner declined to comment on the matter today, but Cunningham said the state bid laws are exempt for hiring of professional services. Gloria Floyd, the county’s grant manager, also said no state bid laws were broken by agreeing to a pending contract for a takeover of services.
Wippler questioned if the county had the best interest of the animals at the facility in mind when making an agreement with what he called an unknown organization. According to records from the Secretary of State’s office, the name Cheaha Regional Humane Society was requested by Wright in August, but no further action has been taken. Cunningham said the organization was waiting for final approval of its tax-exempt nonprofit status.
“I don’t think anybody knows anything about this organization,” Wippler said. “I really think they’re trying to pull one over on the people of this county.”
Abbott previously told The Star the county was considering having an outside organization take over operations of Animal Control as a cost-saving measure. The most recent county budget earmarked $220,000 for Animal Control services.
Cunningham said the nonprofit status of the group also allows the organization to apply for grants and donations unavailable to government entities. The model is based on similar organizations that formed in other cities.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Cunningham said. “Especially for the animals.”
Wippler isn’t the only one upset with the commission’s alleged elusiveness. Shannon Shanks, the director at the Animal Control Center, said the commission has largely kept her in the dark about a possible takeover, only telling her that the staff will keep their jobs.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Shanks, who was hired as director in April. “I have this facility full of animals to take care of and no idea what direction we’re going in.”
Shanks said she was upset when she heard that most of the Animal Control Advisory Board had resigned earlier this month due to a conflict with the commission about being replaced by an outside organization.
“The staff could turn to them whenever we needed guidance,” Shanks said of the board. “They were great at brainstorming ideas, getting adoption rates up. I was sad to see them go, but I understand why they left.”
Cunningham said, however, the main goal of the new organization is to be open to the public about what’s going on – something she said the previous board failed to do.
“We want this to feel like a community project,” Cunningham said. “We want the community to be involved and not just be another government facility.”
Animal Control has been a source of headaches for the commission dating back to last year when the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office investigated claims of animal abuse at the facility. The investigation led the county to appoint the Animal Control Advisory Board. The chairwoman of the board, Janet Odom, resigned earlier this month after learning the county was trying to contract oversight of Animal Control to a different entity.
Cunningham said today she hopes the contract will be finished by November.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.