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Who’s in the dog house?

IOWA CITY– Last Wednesday, representatives of the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center presented their case for proposing a regional animal shelter before board members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of Johnson County.
MPO board members– specifically, those sitting on the Urban Policy Board– had plenty of questions for the panel of presenters. But those making the pitch only had one question in return.
Are you in, or are you out?
In October 2011, 12 government entities throughout Johnson County received letters from the City of Iowa City asking for financial participation in the construction and on-going operation of an animal care and adoption facility that would serve the entire county. The amounts requested were based on the average number of animals taken in from each of those specific jurisdictions over the last three years.
That request was reiterated and explained in more detail to city and county officials last week, and met with much the same response as in October; more questions, some direct criticism and not one commitment.
Since its original building on Kirkwood Avenue was flooded in 2008, the Animal Care and Adoption Center has been operating out of a metal building at 4852 Sand Rd., south of Iowa City. FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), together with the State of Iowa, approved $1.4 million in funding to build a new one of similar size and function.
However, since all municipalities and Johnson County benefit from the shelter and the services it provides– nine of the 12 without formal contracts– the 7,000 sq. ft. that used to handle all the stray and surrendered animals is not large enough to accommodate future growth. Instead, a minimum of 10,380 sq. ft. would be needed to serve Iowa City alone, and a 16,715 sq. ft. building, at an estimated cost of $4 million, would be required if all jurisdictions were to continue to use the facility and its services.
The City of Iowa City would like to see all of them help finance the project, as well as its future operation. For communities that don’t open their checkbooks, the doors of the new facility will be closed to them and their stray animals once it is complete.
Because of FEMA’s project deadlines, Iowa City wants letters from each entity by March 1, stating whether they intend to opt in or out of the construction and use of a new facility. It seeks formal signed agreements from jurisdictions by April 1, said Captain Rick Wyss of the Iowa City Police Department, the entity responsible for administering the animal center’s budget.
“The point of this presentation is, we are in the design phase and have to determine specifically how large a facility we need. We would like to identify any entity interested in continuing a relationship after the new facility is constructed,” said Wyss.
It sounded like an ultimatum to Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig.
“You just said to me its $4 million, or nothing. So no matter how your budget grows, you would be locked into your percentage payment forever. It’s just, ‘here’s your bill, and you have to make a decision in 60 days and commit a future city council to pay that in 2014,’” Rettig said to Iowa City Finance Director Kevin O’Malley. “I think it’s really awkward to tie another council’s hands in a facility where we’ve had no say, no voting and will have no input on future staffing and operations.”
Wyss said Iowa City intended to provide opportunity for discussion with jurisdictions when the initial letter went out last October, including the possibility of creating a multi-jurisdictional board to oversee the design and building of a new facility.
“The supervisors were the only ones who responded, and they said they were not interested in that type of arrangement,” said Wyss.
Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil responded to Wyss’ remark.
“We did respond to Chief Hargardy’s letter in October, hoping there would be some wiggle room. It doesn’t seem like there was a lot of interest with the board of supervisors without some wiggle room. We are put in a bit of a pickle, and certainly in a predicament. For Johnson County, you’re asking for just under $644,000 to commit to this, and we have to decide in less than two months.”
For Johnson County, it would be an upfront commitment of $511,903, and approximately $132,000 each year after that. Because county dollars could only be obtained from taxes collected in its unincorporated areas– municipal residents can’t be taxed twice for the same purpose– Neuzil estimated it would raise rural taxpayer rates by 30 percent.
North Liberty, which contributes an average of 6.4 percent of the facility’s use each year, would be pledging $167,160 to the building’s construction and just over $43,000 per year in the future. Those estimates are based on each jurisdiction’s average percentage of use over the last three years, and would be updated every three years of future operation, with costs adjusted accordingly. Also, noted Wyss, cost sharing amounts for initial construction were estimated using a $4 million price tag, without any contribution from the Friends of the Animal Center Foundation (FACF) capital campaign.
“Their capital campaign will be a critical part,” Wyss told the board members. “It can significantly reduce the governmental costs of this facility.”
North Liberty representatives on the MPO’s Urban Policy Board, Mayor Tom Salm and Councilman Gerry Kuhl, indicated North Liberty officials had not discussed the project or the city’s desire to participate.
“It has a huge impact on our budget, and we have not had the opportunity to discuss numbers at all,” Salm said.
Tiffin council member Chris Ball took time to consider at least a few numbers, saying Tiffin’s police department had just requested a 15 percent budget increase and its fire department a 25 percent increase for the upcoming fiscal year. Tiffin’s proposed cost share in the animal center would be an additional $42,492.
“I just don’t see that in our budget number,” said Ball.
The completion of the project is slated for May 2014.