Buncombe County Commission

“The dog breeders aren’t … causing this problem — it’s the people who don’t care about their animals to begin with.”

— Shelly Moore, executive director, Asheville Humane Society

“The dog breeders aren’t the people who are causing this problem — it’s the people who don’t care about their animals to begin with,” Shelly Moore told the Buncombe County commissioners during their Nov. 18 work session.

Moore is executive director of the Asheville Humane Society, and the problem she was talking about is animal overpopulation. According to Moore, there are more than 10,000 abandoned and stray dogs and cats in the county. And even though the number of unwanted animals has stabilized in recent years (due in part to low-cost spay-and-neuter clinics provided through the AHS), some 6,576 dogs and cats were euthanized during the past year.

To deal with the problem, the Humane Society and the Mimi Paige Foundation, a local nonprofit that promotes responsible animal ownership, are proposing that the county adopt a “breeder permit” supported by a complaint-driven enforcement procedure. In essence, anyone owning a cat or dog that isn’t spayed or neutered would be required to pay a $100 annual fee.

Apart from the ethical challenges of caring for (and often reluctantly destroying) animals abandoned by county residents, the county also incurs a considerable financial burden housing, controlling and killing neglected and/or unwanted animals — more than $1 million this year alone, Moore estimates. About two-thirds of that money comes from county coffers.

And despite the Humane Society’s best efforts, the number of unwanted animals in the county has remained in the 9,000 to 12,000 range. “We feel like we’ve reached everyone we’re going to reach” with these policies, Moore explained. “We just need something extra to give other pet owners a little kick.”

Six months ago, the Mimi Paige Foundation began working with the AHS to research policy changes that could help reduce the number of abandoned and stray animals in Buncombe County.

“We did a search throughout the country to find the ways that other areas had dealt with the same problem,” foundation representative Ellen Frost told the commissioners. “What we wanted was to find a way to make it so that the only people affected were the ones who were creating the problems.”

Frost, a professional dog breeder for more than two decades, emphasized that the proposed fee is not meant to unfairly punish breeders — it simply gives animal owners more incentive to have their pets altered. For most professional and commercial dog breeders, a $100 fee per breeding animal constitutes a very reasonable expense, she said. Frost was also quick to point out that any enforcement of the proposed changes would be strictly complaint-driven and would target uncontrolled breeding. Service dogs (which assist the handicapped), police dogs and hunting dogs would not be affected by the proposed policy.

That caught the attention of Commissioner Bill Stanley, who posed several questions about the proposal’s effects on hunting and farm dogs. “I’d hate to see those dogs punished,” said Stanley. “They live better than most.”

“I appreciate the fact that these changes are not intended to punish,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Ramsey. His chief concern was ensuring that low-cost spaying and neutering be available to county residents. According to Frost, several local programs offer low-cost, spay-and-neuter vouchers on a sliding scale.

The two nonprofits also suggested that the county enact a so-called “puppy lemon law,” which would enable the purchaser of an animal that turned out to suffer from a congenital condition to return, exchange or receive compensation for it. This is a very common complaint among animal owners, said Frost, yet current county law affords no such protection.

Although no action was taken during the work session, the board appeared unanimous in supporting the proposals. The commissioners will vote on the changes during their Dec. 2 formal session.

Other business

The commissioners also heard a presentation on the structural problems of two former school buildings, Red Oak and French Broad, that are now being used as community centers. Both properties are owned by the Buncombe County School District, and in recent months, the school board has considered selling them, due to the rising cost of insuring the aging structures. Although the county is not directly responsible for their condition, its lease agreement with the school board gives the county the right of first refusal should the properties be put up for sale. The presentation was purely informational, since the commissioners would have to sign off on any action by the school board.

“These buildings are ugly, just like me,” joked Commissioner Bill Stanley after being briefed on the structures’ current state of disrepair. But Stanley also stressed that the county is powerless to help unless the school board decides to sell the properties. “We can’t do anything with these buildings until the school board makes a decision on them,” he said.

French Broad Community Center President Terry Embler and the Rev. Dave Torbett, executive director of the community-based nonprofit repair group ReCreation Experiences, briefly discussed their efforts to renovate the building and their plans to invest more than $500,000 in private donations to make it as up-to-date and handicapped-accessible as possible.

Red Oak Community Center representative Earl Rice fielded many questions from the commissioners about Red Oak’s organizational status and fund-raising ability. This was of particular concern because the community center is surrounded by more than nine acres of usable land, which significantly increases the value of the property.

“Philosophically, we always want the community to have these buildings,” said Commissioner David Gantt. “But we also want to make sure that you have some plan to keep it in repair.”

And though the commissioners seemed generally supportive of both groups’ plans, Gantt warned that they need to get their business plans in order while awaiting the school board’s ultimate decision. The school board, noted Gantt, has also shown some interest in the possibility of donating the properties to the two community centers.

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