Cheaha dogs

Milky and Ella, two of 40 dogs on a euthanasia list at Cheaha Regional Humane Society in February. (Kirsten Fiscus/The Anniston Star/file)

The Calhoun County Commission voted Thursday to end its contract with Cheaha Regional Humane Society, setting the stage for county workers to directly staff and run the county’s animal control center.

“We’re going to more of a metro concept,” said commission Chairman Fred Wilson.

In their first meeting since the November general election, the commissioners voted 3-2 to end their relationship with the nonprofit, which in 2014 took over the daily operation of the county animal shelter following disputes about the way the shelter was run under direct county control.

In the past year, Cheaha Regional has also become disputed ground. Two former employees left the shelter earlier this year, alleging that they were underpaid and confronted with a hostile work environment.  One of those employees was later charged with stealing a dog from the shelter. Shelter director Jane Cunningham in March filed a libel suit against an online critic who accused her of “funny business” with the organization’s tax returns.

Cunningham wasn’t at the Thursday commission meeting, and attempts to reach her afterward were unsuccessful. Commissioners made no comment about the shelter motion prior to the vote, and didn’t mention Cheaha Regional’s disputes when asked their reason for the vote.

“We’re ready to move in a new direction,” said Commissioner Eli Henderson, who voted to cancel the humane society’s contract. Henderson was the only new face on the board after the Nov. 6 election, in which four commission incumbents won re-election.

Wilson also voted to terminate the contract. He declined to discuss his thinking on the issue before the vote.

After the vote, he handed a reporter a one-paragraph written statement on the issue.

“The County has decided to move in a new direction to better meet the needs of animal control,” the statement read. It said the “county hopes bringing animal control services back under the county’s control will be a cost-saving measure and give the municipalities a chance to work with us.”

Asked if internal disputes at the shelter were part of his decision, Wilson implied they couldn’t be.

“You hear things, but if you can’t verify them, they can’t be part of your consideration,” he said.

Commissioners J.D. Hess and Tim Hodges voted against canceling the contract.

“Animal control’s always an issue,” Hodges said. “No matter who’s in charge, these things are going to happen.”

Hodges said he felt there hadn’t been enough discussion of the motion.

“I’d like to see us put the brakes on this for a moment and talk it out,” Hodges said before the meeting.

The commission’s action gives Cheaha Regional 90 days notice before the end of its contract, which would put the Morrisville Road animal control center back under county control at the beginning of March.

County administrator Mark Tyner said the move was motivated by three factors – a need to get strays under control, a need for a more unified approach to the stray problem and difficulties with the current building on Morrisville Road. The control center seems to be outgrowing the parking and sewage facilities of the Morrisville Road site, he said.

Tyner said the county would work more with local cities to develop a single county-wide approach to animal control if possible.

Technically, the county facility is already a “metro” center, taking in animals from surrounding cities. Tyner said cities do pitch in to pay for the current center’s operation as well. Past audits show Cheaha Regional getting about $200,000 per year to run the center. Tax forms from 2015 and 2016 show the center reporting well above $300,000 in income from government grants, without specifying individual sources of grant money.

Asked if cities have been recruited to participate in a metro shelter, Tyner said that process begins now.

“I will be doing that,” he said. “I will talk to them directly.”

Tyner said he wasn’t yet sure how many staffers would be needed to run the shelter in March, though he said the county should be ready to advertise some positions, including a position for director, within a few weeks.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.