Highland County commissioners (l-r) Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured during their Sept. 11 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners (l-r) Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured during their Sept. 11 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Tempers flared Wednesday morning as Highland County commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy heard a request from a county resident for improvements at the Highland County Dog Pound during their Sept. 11 meeting.

Pat Lawrence scheduled a 9:15 a.m. appointment with commissioners, where she read a prepared statement outlining various recommendations for the Highland County Dog Pound facility and staff, primarily her assertion “we need a new building at the pound, and we need to give pound employees a fair wage.”

Lawrence said that dogs live at the dog pound for longer terms than in previous years, when dogs were routinely euthanized. Consequently, she said, they are in need of an improved facility.

“Some dogs have to remain weeks, sometimes months,” Lawrence said. “Dogs await their fate in the same windowless building that once housed a gas chamber and three rows of cages.

“There’s no sun, no view and no access to the outdoors. Terrified dogs eat, sleep, poop and pee in a dark 4x5 enclosure on a concrete floor.”

Lawrence said there are a number of other issues at the facility, including “unreliable” electricity, “defective” ventilation, a “defective” five-gallon water heater that “leaks” and “a front door that’s rotting off.” She also said they need to have a “dog run” where dogs can roam outside.

Lawrence also argued that the dog pound staff deserves “a living wage,” saying that longtime dog warden Cathy Seifer — who recently resigned — has been “on call 24 hours a day” and part-time deputy warden Lanny Brown make “about the salary of a commissioner” combined.

“They deserve to be paid a living wage,” Lawrence said. “They deserve to paid overtime when it is worked and due. They deserve to be included in the budget making for their department. They deserve the same respect and protection that is afforded to employees of the sheriff’s department or any county department.”

As previously reported, commissioners officially voted to increase dog and kennel registration fees in a resolution Wednesday, Aug. 28. Commissioners and Highland County auditor Bill Fawley entered into executive session for personnel at 9:15 a.m. Aug. 21. After exiting executive session, the commissioners stated they would be raising dog license fees from $12 to $14.

Lawrence said that this was “certainly a positive step,” but that she is “concerned the increase won’t matter at all where it needs to” because a decision has also been made that “the pound is to pay for its own water and electric.”

Lawrence gave a list of several suggestions to achieve her requests:

• That “a single commissioner, and my hope would be Gary Abernathy because he has dogs, would accept a leadership role in addressing these issues,” including overseeing a committee “to gather information and make recommendations.” Lawrence suggested that the committee gather quotes for repairs and compile “a projected timeline within three months and present it to the commission for review and action.”

• That the pound’s paid employees be involved in the budget-making process.

• That the pound also needs “new signage at the entry and prohibition of firearms” at the building.

• That the committee and commissioners discuss a $1 addition to annual taxes with money going toward a new building for the pound.

• That “the commissioners expand their website with more opportunities for input from the public and recognition of the role the pound plays in the community.”

• Lawrence also volunteered to assist in writing press releases and raising public awareness about the pound, its fees and other information “through the direction of a single commissioner, not the triumvirate.”

After Lawrence finished reading her prepared statement, Abernathy said that he “encourages everybody I know to go to the pound and get their dogs,” where he said he also adopted his dogs.

“Because of that, we need to make a building that is at least human-accessible,” Lawrence responded.

Abernathy said that he appreciated Lawrence’s comments “but frankly would expect a lot of what you brought to us today to come from the dog warden, someone working at the dog pound.”

“As everyone knows, we have an open-door policy,” Abernathy said. “It’s not hard to come in and sit with us.

“A lot of the things you’ve laid out here are new thoughts I haven’t heard from people.”

Lawrence had earlier argued that the pound’s role has changed over time, with the elimination of regular euthanasia and with some animals staying there longer due to legal cases.

“Whatever it’s evolved to over the years, if you were to sit here and listen to the calls we get here, our primary purpose is to get stray dogs out of the county,” Abernathy said. “We didn’t mean to create a long-term care facility. We want the dogs to be safe, warm, fed, well-taken care of.”

“I understand what they do,” Lawrence said.

Abernathy said the “number-one priority” of the pound is “to protect the people of Highland County from stray and vicious dogs.”

“If we can afford to make improvements at the facility, I know we’re all more than happy to do that,” Abernathy said. “Whether we could ever build a new building or something like that is a different story.”

“We have the land,” Lawrence said. “We don’t need a new building. We just need runs for the dogs.”

Another man in attendance, Larry Cadle, said he wanted to “make sure our concern is not just to catch the dogs.”

“It’s not,” Abernathy said. “But that’s our primary job, though, frankly.”

“But it is certainly a reflection of us as citizens and people, how we treat those dogs after we catch them,” Cadle said.

“There is a humane society,” Abernathy said. “There are private kennels. This is a discussion of what degree to go to, as a county dog pound, to be that kind of facility when our main job is to turn those dogs around and get them adopted.”

Abernathy said that the county could do more to promote adoption of pets at the dog pound. Lawrence replied that in order to do so they need a building that “doesn’t stink, the floors aren’t sopping wet and there is enough room to walk between the cages.”

“We have all this lovely land right behind where the building is,” Lawrence said. “We need a concrete block building with runs. It’s really not that hard.”

Lawrence said that the cost of a new building would likely be more affordable than tackling all of the issues at the current building. “If you don’t have a plan, you’ll never have a new building,” Lawrence said.

Abernathy responded that he was “wide-open to input” from the paid staff at the pound as they currently “are in transition with personnel.”

“And the committee? What do you think? Do we need to do that, or do we need to wait?” Lawrence asked.

“I think we need to wait,” Abernathy said.

“So to ever do a resolution to do a new building, you would resolve to do that, or how would you even start on that?” Lawrence asked.

Duncan said it would “all depend on the funding we have.”

“We go through our budgeting process,” Duncan said. “We’re beginning to start that for the year. We can sit down with employees at the dog pound and have them give us suggestions. Are we going to have a new building next year? I doubt that, but we can certainly look at making longterm plans.”

Lawrence asked if she could submit quotes for a new building. “Sure,” Duncan said.

“This would be employees we would be working with to do that,” Abernathy told Lawrence. “We do this all the time with facilities, and the people working there get estimates of repairs. That’s something that in our purview, and we know how to go through the process.”

“My understanding is the response is always the same: ‘There is no money,’” Lawrence said. “I don’t believe that they have any faith that it matters to submit that.”

“I can’t speak to what they have faith in,” Abernathy said.

“If you would remind them, perhaps, that you need a list of things that need to be repaired, or I can tell Lanny [Brown, deputy warden],” Lawrence said.

“We can tell Lanny,” Abernathy said.

(Brown was already in attendance, waiting for an executive session after Lawrence’s appointment.)

“If it has to come from them, fine,” Lawrence said. “The goal of the pound is part of my responsibility as much as it is yours – 1.5 percent of my money goes to do things for the county, and I think this is an area that’s important.”

Abernathy reminded Lawrence of commissioners’ executive session with Brown. “I would hope that going forward, we have more communication coming our direction from the employees,” Lawrence said.

Cadle asked if commissioners “have solicited information from anyone who works [at the pound], even once,” in the last year. Duncan and Abernathy both said, “Yes.”

“I made a suggestion, but it was kind of knocked in the head,” Brown said. “Trying to put something on to have a $1 tax a year to taxpaying citizens in Highland County, and that $1 goes strictly to the pound.”

“We have no legal ability to do that,” Abernathy said.

“I’m talking about putting it on the ballot,” Brown said. “Why can’t you do that?”

Abernathy said the county was “at its limit” on sales taxes. “You have made that suggestion,” Abernathy said.

“I get the same reply, any time I say something,” Brown said.

“It’s the same reply because that’s the legal reason,” Abernathy said.

“What, that Highland County is poor?” Brown asked. “That’s what I was told.”

“Who said that?” Abernathy asked.

“Mr. Britton,” Brown said. “I said, ‘Fayette County has better facilities. Fayette County has better wages.’ He said, ‘Fayette County is much wealthier than Highland County.’”

“No, I didn’t,” Britton said.

“Yes, you did,” Brown said. “That’s exactly what you said.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Britton said.

Abernathy said that the commission “doesn’t have the legal right” to assess a $1 levy on citizens.

“Then how do they put some stuff out there to vote on?” Brown said.

Highland County auditor Bill Fawley said that the county was limited on it sales tax, but Brown “is talking about running it as a property tax, where you would vote on it like you would vote on it like you would on a health levy.”

“I just don’t know whether you can do that or not,” Fawley said.

“I feel like I know what the outcome would be of an additional property tax vote,” Abernathy said. “Ask the schools. They’ll tell you.”

Duncan put a stop to the arguing and thanked everyone for their input. “We’ll certainly consider everything that’s been discussed,” he said.

Check back to highlandcountypress.com for more coverage of Wednesday’s commission meeting.