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County consults with Erwin on local animal control solutions

By Jonathan Pleasant
Representatives from the Johnson County Humane Society were present at last week’s county commission meeting to express their continued desire to see the county establish and implement its own animal control. Having already met with the animal control committee on two occasions, guest speaker Mary Lane explained that nearby Unicoi County went through the same process just a few years ago and has been met with an amazing amount of success.
To explain the situation better, Lane invited Unicoi Shelter Director Jessica Blevins, and board member Joann Tatro to speak as well. A joint effort between Erwin, Unicoi County and the Town of Unicoi, the process of building the shelter and getting started was a direct result of community involvement and interest.
Erwin already operated a small shelter with a very high rate of euthanasia, but like Johnson County, services outside of the city limits were very limited. Bringing together representatives from all three governments, a board was created and plans began to construct a new building while sharing the cost. Aided by donations and fundraisers, Unicoi County’s part in the construction was just $30,000.
The first year of actual running cost over $100,000, but every year since then the cost has dropped dramatically until now the shelter pays for its own operations, and with any luck will someday be completely self-sufficient. The big cost comes from hiring staff, and initially all the cleaning and maintenance work was done by inmates under the supervision of one fulltime director. Erwin’s original animal control officer began working with the new system and eventually a second officer was added.
As the shelter grew gradually less expensive to the local governments, more staff were hired and operations greatly increased. At the same time the effectiveness of the shelter increased as well. In the first year Unicoi euthanized over 2,000 animals, but in less than 10 years that number has dropped to just 400, thanks in part to increased adoption efforts and a successful spay and neuter program.
Most of Unicoi’s funding is generated through adoption fees and fees for returned pets that have been taken to the shelter. There has also been some limited enforcement of the leash law, mostly in the city limits, and a steady stream of fundraisers and donations. In just five years, Unicoi County went from having no animal control at all to receiving awards and recognition as one of the best small shelters in the state.
Supporters like Lane and the Humane Society are hopeful the same kind of success could happen in Johnson County. Recognizing the fact that the project would require partnership, Lane was hopeful that both the Town of Mountain City and the Human Society could become involved as well, working together to lessen the overall burden. To that end, Lane also announced that the Humane Society is considering the future of their own shelter in Butler, although nothing has yet been decided.
Members of the county animal control committee will be making a trip to Unicoi at the end of the month to see the shelter for themselves, and although there is a long road ahead, Chairman Freddy Phipps summed it up by saying that at least the county was making a start.
The other big discussion of the night was a presentation given by Dr. Tina Delahunty, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) expert who lives in the county and has been volunteering a lot of her time working with the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority (DMRA). Having taught GIS as a professor in Texas for several years, Delahunty has seen an increasing need for specialized mapping and GIS in many of the county’s organizations.
Some of the big issues involve increasingly more specific mandates coming down from the state, especially in the tax assessor’s office and the county highway department. Other boards and governing bodies, including the Town of Mountain City, the Johnson County 911, and Mountain Electric are all facing similar needs and demands for accurate maps and data, and as a result Delahunty has been looking into the possibility of getting these various agencies together to be able to share information and reduce costs.
Although many of the agencies contacted have shown interest in the project, Delahunty announced that Mountain City has decided to opt out at this time, but could choose to participate in the future. The tax assessor’s office in particular is in need of assistance to update their online materials, including more accurate and detailed plat information.
The primary costs for getting the project underway involve expensive software, training, and the time required to do the work. As a result Delahunty is also looking into grant possibilities down the road. The project is just now getting underway, but with a little luck Delahunty is hopeful that the various agencies in the county will be able to work together and in doing so operate with much more dependable information while at the same time saving money.
In her capacity with the DMRA, Delahunty has also been involved in a separate Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant to be used on Doe Mountain and at the county owned visitors center on Harbin Hill Road. Having purchased the building and land to serve as an office and entrance for the mountain, Johnson County Mayor Larry Potter was pleased to present the board with a memorandum of understanding between the county and the DMRA to  designate its use and open up the grant money. Officially the visitor’s center will remain county property, but the DMRA will be permitted to utilize it.
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.