kitten.jpg (copy) (copy)

A kitten at the Charleston Animal Society in 2017. 

The Charleston Animal Society finds itself in a most unlikely place — the doghouse.

A few weeks ago, the nonprofit shelter demanded more than $1 million from North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Charleston to continue accepting animals from them. The Animal Society blamed County Council.

“The county has historically and admittedly underfunded this vendor contract by millions of dollars, which has been subsidized by Charleston Animal Society donors,” the letter from CEO Joe Elmore and board Chairman Hank Greer said. “The cost for the humane disposition of animals in Charleston County is projected at nearly $3.2 million ... however, the County communicated to us on May 16, 2019, that it has identified only $2.1 million.”

The June 24  letter was the first municipal officials had heard about this dispute. And it didn’t go over well with the cities, which got the bill, or the county, which got the blame. And that’s a big political problem for Charleston’s largest no-kill shelter.

Various elected officials are now alternately — and quietly — threatening to cut off Animal Society funding, confiscate land donated to the charity and even contract with another shelter.

Elmore says this isn’t the Animal Society’s fight, but a debate for government officials. He says he’s not criticizing the county, but his group has repeatedly told county officials the cost of running the shelter — and they chose not to pay for it. They had nowhere else to turn, he says, and the county should have warned the cities.

“For years, our donors have subsidized the saving of these animals by almost $1 million a year,” Elmore says. “We don’t want to get into which government is going to pay — that’s their fight. But, in politics, it’s easier to kill the messenger.”

Most South Carolina counties have government-run animal shelters, but Charleston contracts with the nonprofit Animal Society. And, in the past decade, it has more than doubled the shelter’s funding.

Four years ago, the county gave the shelter $1.3 million. It has increased that amount from 6-20 percent each year, approving $2.1 million for the group most recently.

County officials say the Animal Society’s decision to become a no-kill shelter led to increased costs. Elmore disagrees, but says his staff will not euthanize any of the nearly 10,000 animals it takes in each year. If  local governments want to do that, he says, they can take their business elsewhere.

A week after sending that letter to the cities, the Animal Society signed its new contract with the county specifying that county government would no longer pay for animals dropped off by the cities. It was not a council directive and council members say the idea came from the charity.

The upshot is the Animal Society will still accept animals from county residents.

It just won’t take drop-offs from Charleston, North Charleston or Mount Pleasant animal control officers until the cities pay up.

Local officials believe they’ve been more than fair with the shelter. North Charleston donated the land for its facility and the county put $8 million into its construction. Mount Pleasant Town Council just approved giving the shelter $50,000 from its annual budget; North Charleston City Council kicked in $25,000.

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Charleston City Council stopped contributing a few years ago, probably because some council members aren’t thrilled with the billboard campaign against the horse carriage industry — and they blame Animal Society donors.

It doesn’t help that Charleston and North Charleston both say their animal control officers have already been locked out of the shelter, even though the Animal Society letter said they would have until September to work out a payment plan.

That may not be the best strategy.

Mount Pleasant has already passed its budget for the year. Charleston will set its budget at the end of the year, but already some city officials have balked. North Charleston flat-out said no.

“We did not include half of a million dollars in (the budget) for the Animal Society, and I will not recommend additional dollars to City Council at this time,” Mayor Keith Summey said. “The City will entertain potential adjustments to strategize a tactic to reduce the number of animals making their way to the shelter.”

The Animal Society has asked the cities and county to work with it to control populations of strays through neuter and spay programs, which is a good idea.

But, thanks to miscommunication and a staggering lack of diplomacy, it could be the shelter that ends up under the knife.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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