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TAKING SHAPE Joint venture looks like best animal shelter plan

As discussions continue about the future of the troubled McCracken County animal shelter, several points strike us.

One is that the shelter scenario in McCracken County is reversed from what is generally the norm. The publicly funded county shelter is operating as a "low-kill" facility (and is underfunded as a consequence) while the privately funded McCracken County Humane Society has historically operated more like a public facility, putting down animals that are determined to be unadoptable and making euthanasia decisions based on capacity and funds. The latter phenomenon is largely explained by the fact that for generations the Humane Society shelter was the only one in McCracken County, operating under contract with city and county governments to provide animal control.

In most communities it is the precise opposite - the low-kill or no-kill shelters are operated by non-profits with private funds, and when they reach capacity or money gets tight they simply cease accepting animals. Public shelters typically have euthanasia policies like those observed by the Humane Society shelter over the years.

A second observation is that from what we know of the discussions of two committees that are looking at options for a shelter or shelters going forward, there may be too much emphasis on what the community could afford to build, and not enough on how much the community is willing and able to pay for operating costs. Or put another way, if we build a "mega shelter", as has been suggested, what is it going to cost to staff and operate it in a way that complies with state law (something the current county shelter admits it is not doing)?

At a meeting of the county shelter task force last week a couple of potential paths seemed to be taking shape. One was for the county to build a facility at a cost of $1.6 to $1.9 million, and form an independent non-profit to run it. The non-profit would lease the facility from the county and operate it as a low-kill shelter.

That proposal - at least to the extent we understand it - doesn't excite us very much. It sounds like a formula for continuing the untenable situation at the current shelter. It asks the county to build a new shelter and then effectively cede control to a non-profit, which, if it cannot raise the money needed to support its operations, leaves the taxpayers stuck with essentially the same mess that exists now.

The other option seems to make more sense. That proposal involves a government partnership with the McCracken County Humane Society to build an 11,000-square-foot facility modeled after one in Lexington. The facility would be able to handle a population of 170 animals, and would operate under a long-term contract with the city and county. The advantage of that plan is that it brings the Humane Society's endowment of almost $2 million to bear on the problem, as opposed to taxpayer funds, and it would provide the city and county governments with cost certainty by virtue of the long-term contract. The major objection to that proposal by some on the committees is that the Humane Society shelter would likely not be "low-kill."

Our view is you cannot have it both ways as far as the publicly operated shelter is concerned. The folly of a publicly funded low-kill shelter is staring the community in the face right now. Animals are kept in unacceptable and illegal conditions.

The Humane Society joint venture appears to be the most realistic option for purposes of city-county animal control.

For those desiring a low-kill facility, we think one would be welcome here. But we think it would have to be separate, smaller, and operate wholly on charitable funds, as most other low- or no-kill shelters do these days. There's room for both types of facilities in our community, but both need to be realistically planned and operated.

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