Charleston Animal Society gets big boost in new county budget

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 is bandaged up and has to be changed daily at the Charleston Animal Society on Tuesday.

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

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

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

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.

The Charleston County Council agreed to provide $1.37 million, 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 CAS, the county would pay three times more for housing, treating and adoption services for stray animals, he said.

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

"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 budget is funded in large part through donations and fees, Elmore said.

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

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

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

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.

The funding shortfall affects education and community outreach efforts, he said.

Municipalities also provide support for the animal society. North Charleston gives $25,000 annually, Mount Pleasant $20,000 and Charleston $3,000. They also contributed to the cost of building the new shelter headquarters on Remount Road in North Charleston. The society still owes $1.6 million on that building.