The one-year animal shelter contract that the Limestone County Commission approved this week is 62.9% more than the county paid three years ago, but the veterinarian who operates the service said the higher amount is necessary because his costs have risen.

District 2 Commissioner Danny Barksdale initially objected to the amount of the $558,487 contract with veterinarian Robert Pitman during Tuesday's commission meeting. However, Barksdale voted to approve the agreement after District 3 Commissioner Jason Black said the issue should have been brought up sooner and there wasn't time to find another option before fiscal 2022 starts Oct. 1.

Black said, “Is that a lot of money? That’s way more money than I ever thought would be used in a month’s time for animal control and animal shelter. But it’s the bid that we got, the only one that we’ll get, and that’s why I’m so accepting of it."

A three-year animal shelter contract that started in 2019 had built-in 8.5% yearly increases, and an additional increase of $154,864 annually was approved in June 2020. The county paid Pitman $342,860 for fiscal 2019. He originally would have received $372,003 in fiscal 2020 but received an additional $38,716 (three months of the June 2020 increase) for a total of $410,719. The total rose to $558,487 in the current fiscal year and will remain at the same level in fiscal 2022 — $215,627 more than in 2019.

Pitman said the shelter, which also is funded by the city of Athens, takes in almost 4,000 animals a year and the cost per animal is about $200.

According to Pitman, the number of animals has increased because “there’s about 5,000 people moving in from Toyota and other plants, all the subdivisions are full, and there’s two or three other subdivisions being built.”

Limestone County's population grew from 82,789 people in 2010 to 103,570 in 2020, a 25.1% increase, according to census data. Every home has an average of 2.5 pets per household, and people are surrendering their pets, Pitman said.

Athens pays Pitman with a three-year contract that comes out to $143,000 annually, according to Annette Barnes, clerk of the city of Athens.

Black said Pitman owns the shelter.

"If somebody comes in and can provide the same service at a lesser cost, that’s who we’re going to choose. We just don’t have any options," Black said. 

He said it would be expensive for the county to build and staff its own shelter.

"A veterinarian’s salary is going to be $95,000 to $100,000 a year. So, then you’ve got to have employees, so you’ve reached the $500,000 we’re paying him, that quick, and then you’ve got to build a building. And you’ve got to air condition that building, you’ve got to heat that building, it’s got to be a safe building, it’s got to go under the codes,” said Black.

Barksdale said he is open to exploring of Limestone County running its own shelter.

“Last year, in June, (Pitman) got a $154,864 raise. I wasn’t on the commission then,” said Barksdale.

According to Black, “(Pitman) came back to us, maybe a year and a half, two years ago, when COVID first started, and he was accruing a lot of cost that were much, much higher, because people weren't able to take care of their animals. People were turning their animals in. He went to other surrounding counties and saw what their comparative rates were, and he asked for us to do a one-time rate adjustment for him.”

Black said with the new contract, Pitman can no longer ask for a percentage raise each year like he did with the previous contract where he required an 8.5% increase each year. “That’s not part of the contract. He cannot do that.”

Barksdale said Limestone needs to compare its shelter operation to other counties. “I haven’t been to Lauderdale, but we need to do that.”

Black disagreed.

“Lee County actually came up and did their program based on Limestone County’s program. So, if we’re going to be a front-runner, I don’t want to have to go around and compare to all these other locations," Black said. “If we go across the river and compare to Lawrence County, they’ve been in a lawsuit for about five years. If you go to DeKalb County, they’ve been in a lawsuit.” 

According to Black, if a dog, or even a horse, gets hit by a car and is brought to the clinic, if life-saving surgery can be done, it will be, regardless of whether the shelter is able to identify the owner. If the owner then decides to surrender the animal to the county, the county will absorb the cost of the medical care.

Black said there is a spay and neuter program for low-income people where they only have to pay a small fee.

According to Emily Ezzell, accountant for the Limestone County Commission, the spay and neuter program is called SNYP and is a separate amount of $7,500 paid by the county to Pitman yearly. Athens pays an additional $5,000 annually for this program. It is not included in his contracts.

“Animal control and animal shelter is a key term in government, and you have to take care of those animals, as well as you do people,” said Black.

Black said he has had all types of pets in his lifetime. “I’m very passionate about it; I love animals. I just want them to be taken care of.”

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