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Animal control comes down to who pays

Declaring that he has been “caught in the middle” of a growing dispute between Henderson County and its towns, Sheriff Charlie McDonald said he would be glad to offer animal control services countywide. The solution comes down to who pays.

Reacting to a story in last week’s Hendersonville Lightning, McDonald and his animal control services supervisor described in greater detail the background and state law on catching dogs, trapping cats and conducting other animal services in the county. Confusion and conflict over who answers common animal calls go back years, the sheriff’s officials said.
“I’m glad to provide that service across the county for everybody,” McDonald said. “I think it would be easier for all players, it would be easier for our guys, it would be easier for the municipalities, it’s easier for the animal shelter to deal with one entity. When we have situations with a rabies outbreak, it’s better with the health department. Everybody pretty much would like to see us do that. But I don’t have the band power to do that. That’s the only thing that keeps me from doing that.”
Elected leaders and town managers tend to share McDonald’s view that a uniform, countywide approach to animal control is the way to go. The $360,000 question is who foots the bill?
As they begin making budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1, towns are starting to look at plans to cover animal control services that the sheriff’s office says it will no longer offer in municipalities. Later this week, the Hendersonville City Council will review a recommendation from City Manager John Connet to add an animal control unit made up of two police officers. Fletcher Town Manager Mark Biberdorf plans to submit a proposal for animal services coverage as well.

Sheriff gets animal control

The Board of Commissioners shifted animal services from the pound to the sheriff’s office in 2007.
Lt. Mike Marsteller, supervisor of the animal services unit, said the conflict over coverage within cities goes back that far.
“They were answering requests for cat traps,” he said. “Anywhere in the county they asked for a cat trap, we would set it up.” A member of the animal services board objected, saying the sheriff’s office did not have the authority to trap cats on city property. The county attorney looked at it and said, “Yeah, they’re right. You can’t enforce that,” Marsteller said.
Jason Smith, the sheriff’s office attorney, said state law gives the sheriff’s office the authority to enforce animal control ordinances in the unincorporated areas and gives cities the authority within their boundaries. Cities may adopt county ordinances so the rules apply in their boundaries. As time went on, cities did pass the county’s animal control ordinance, which would give the sheriff’s animal control unit authority to enforce its regulation. But one more step has to happen before the sheriff’s office sends the dog catcher. The Board of Commissioners has to approve the contract. Among Henderson County’s towns, only Mills River has a guarantee of animal control services, thanks to a $750,000 contract with the sheriff’s office to provide police protection.

Cities demur on $360,000 bill

The animal control issue erupted again last fall at a meeting of the Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action, a quarterly meeting of officials from the county and municipalities. Nick Weedman, Flat Rock’s vice mayor, followed up by meeting with Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt and town managers to gather information on the cost of animal control in the cities. The county said the sheriff’s office could provide the service for $360,000, the cost of a two-officer team with a truck, dog box and equipment.
Sheriff’s office figures show that dispatchers answered 6,496 calls for animal control – from barking dogs to stray cats to animal cruelty. The breakdown was 5,024 in the unincorporated area, 342 in Mills River, 265 in Fletcher, 85 in Laurel Park, 107 in Flat Rock, 663 in Hendersonville and 10 in other jurisdictions.
Municipalities have not expressed an interest in sharing costs to cover the $360,000 animal control operation.
“The bottom line is I haven’t heard anything back that they’re interested in footing the bill,” Wyatt said. The towns “wanted the county to just to do it, like EMS. But it’s a police power, and these jurisdictions have chosen to have a police force.”
Wyatt said it’s ultimately up to the Board of Commissioners to decide whether countywide animal control is like the ambulance service – paid for by the county and available to all.
“It’s a policy decision,” he said. “That’s about a quarter-cent on the property tax. If the board wanted to visit the issue, it could.”

‘Who’s going to pay?’

McDonald disputes the suggestion from city officials that his office had abruptly pulled animal control from cities.
“When we told them, ‘Look, we can’t cover this, we’re way in over our head and we can’t keep up, we’re going to have back down and go back to our SOGs (standard operating guidelines),’ I had chiefs say that we changed the rules,” he said. “We never changed rules. We just went back to the original agreement. And still, we’re not going to leave somebody in an emergency situation in one of these municipalities. We were getting calls because somebody didn’t want to put a dirty wet dog in the back of their (patrol) car and drive it to the animal shelter.”
The sheriff’s office stands ready to cover dog catching and other animal control functions countywide, he said, as long as someone figures out how to pay for it.
“I can understand the county manager and Board of Commissioners feeling that why should we have to pay more officers for a need within the municipalities,” he said. “That’s their feeling. That leaves me in the position of just not being able to provide the services across the county that everybody in the county says they need. I’m not against the plan. But the problem for me is if I don’t have the manpower. I can’t provide any more service.
“My guys are trained. They know the ins and outs. They work with the animal shelter. They work with the health department,” he added. “We know what to do. I think it would be easier across the board. The bottom line is: Who’s going to pay for that? And the commissioners are well within their rights to say, ‘It’s not going to be us. It’s going to be the city.’ ”

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