Animal Society gets county contribution boost

Katie Wydra, surgical technician, and Margaret Morris, veterinarian, put a new bandage on a dog that was attacked recently. She has an infected wound that needs rebandaging daily at the Charleston Animal Society.

The Charleston Animal Society will get $450,000 more from the county in the coming budget year but still faces a deficit to continue operating as a "no-kill" shelter.

The society had asked Charleston County to increase its share of funding from $921,000 to $2 million beginning in July under its contract for the housing, care and adoption of stray animals.

The request reflected the additional cost of working to find a home for every adoptable animal brought to the shelter, said Joe Elmore, the society's chief executive officer.

Because of increased costs, he said, staff has been cut, pay raises reduced and vacations canceled.

"It is hard. It took a tremendous toll on our staff last year," Elmore said. "We're not built to hold and treat the number of animals that come into us."

The shelter, which takes in 90 percent of the strays in Charleston County, is designed for 250 animals but routinely exceeds that number. It has 60 staffers but needs 20 more, Elmore said.

Under the no-kill approach, the shelter does not euthanize an animal if it is judged to be adoptable and treatable, he said. In 2008, before switching to a no-kill policy, 7,000 animals were euthanized. Last year, 700 were put down, he said.

"We will run ourselves into the ground before we put down any animal that we can save," he said.

Charleston County Council agreed to provide $1.37 million - a nearly 50 percent hike - but cautioned that the increase can't be sustained indefinitely

"He (Elmore) is going to have to go and raise more money," said County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.

Pryor said he supports the increase in county funding for the animal society because it provides a vital service.

"People drop off animals right and left," he said.

Without the animal society, he said, the county would pay three times more for housing, treating and adoption services for stray animals.

While increased revenue from an improved economy makes the higher county contribution possible, Pryor said, it is a "one-time benefit" that may not happen in the next budget.

"We were not involved or included in (the change to no-kill management). We are upholding our end of the bargain," Pryor said.

The shelter's $4 million annual budget is funded in large part through donations and fees, Elmore said.

Support also comes from municipalities: $25,000 from North Charleston, $20,000 from Mount Pleasant and $3,000 from Charleston. The municipalities also helped the society build a new shelter headquarters on Remount Road in North Charleston. The society still owes $1.6 million on that building.

The shelter ran a deficit of $300,000 last year that was covered by dipping into a $1 million investment account. That is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, Elmore said.