As Randy Higgins flew over the front of his Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic motorcycle and into a ditch last month, the irony of the circumstance did not escape him.
Irony was his first thought, the Faulkner County Justice of the Peace said.
It was ironic that he’d just been so directly confronted by the issue he’s been consumed with on paper for the last 10 months.
A stray dog walked into the road on Higgins’ Saturday drive, and he swerved in order to miss it, thinking the damage to himself and the dog would be lesser than the last time.
Ten years earlier, he’d hit another wandering dog and caused its death and $300 in damages to his bike.
This time, however, the move to miss the dog cost him his Harley, his “baby,” and left him with months of voice recovery from a bruised larynx.
He thinks he may have nicked the big black dog’s tail on his way to the ditch.
All the while, Higgins has been heading the Courts and Public Safety Committee where the chief concern has been to finally make some kind of headway in getting Faulkner County’s animal welfare and population under control.
It’s a topic that’s far from his own passion, but one that he says has flooded his e-mail inbox and taken precedence over any other issue in his term.
People want this taken care of, Higgins said, adding that animal control problems have been going on for too long without a solution.
It comes down to the money.
THE VOLUNTARY TAX AND THE NUMBERS
For about 10 years, county residents have been contributing to a voluntary tax earmarked for a future animal shelter that would exist for the numerous stray, homeless and feral animals in Faulkner County.
Higgins, a member of the Quorum Court, says the fund sits at about $800,000, not enough to both build and maintain a county animal shelter.
On average, the voluntary tax brings in about $80,000 to $90,000 per year.
Building a shelter will cost between $1.2 and $1.5 million, while yearly operating costs are estimated to be between $250,000 and $300,000.
There’s no money left for operation in this model, and not enough after 10 years of collection to build a shelter for animals.
A Quorum Court mandated tax increase for Faulkner County residents that would support such an annual operating cost is absolutely out of the question, according to Higgins.
“Frankly, there is no appetite in the Quorum Court for a tax increase of any kind on the citizens of Faulkner County,” Higgins said.
Meanwhile, he added, the Budget and Finance Committee struggles to find ways to more adequately compensate county employees, some of whom put their lives on the line for service to Faulkner County residents.
“I agree with a number of JPs that we do not need to allocate money from the County General Fund for animal control until the county employee compensation issue is addressed first,” he said.
Two schools of thought exist for ways to go forward with finally addressing this problem, Higgins said.
One is that Faulkner County builds and operates its own shelter, and the other is that Faulkner County partners with the City of Conway to control Faulkner County animals.
But the merge would at least double the city’s animal load and responsibility, Higgins said.
He estimates $700,000 would bring the city’s Animal Welfare Control facility up to size to take on county animals, but that plan is still hung up on the approximate $250,000 annual operating cost.
The city has its own way of dealing with animal control, its own citations, animal control officers, ordinances, fees and income that support its programs.
The merge would have its challenges, but they’re not insurmountable, Higgins said.
His committee has been working with city officials like Conway Police Chief A.J. Gary and Shona Osborne, director of the Conway Animal Welfare Unit.
While the groups are cooperating enough to find answers to the problem, money is still impeding real progress.
A NEW ORDINANCE FOR ANIMAL CONTROL
In waiting, Higgins has been in about a dozen meetings this year with city and county officials, concerned independent animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of Faulkner County, and independent residents who have contributed to the tax fund over the years.
With the help of County Judge Allen Dodson, Courts and Public Safety committee members, and solicited community feedback, what Higgins believes is the first step is coming to pass.
He has drafted a 10-page animal control ordinance that has some strict regulations and penalties for animal owners in the county.
Until now, animal control in Faulkner County has consisted of a few ordinances on rabid dogs and exotic animals.
The exotic animal ordinances were due to the presence of the Safari Park on Highway 65 north of Greenbrier that has since shut down, Higgins explained.
Under the new ordinance, rabies vaccinations are required along with proof in the form of tags, much the same as the city’s ordinance.
Similarly, ownership and annual vaccinations must also be proved by tags.
It will be unlawful for any person to abandon a dog in Faulkner County with the ordinance in effect.
Animals trespassing, at large, found damaging, bothering, barking excessively, or interfering with service personnel or property will subject their owners to fines.
A county animal ordinance with these regulations and penalties is a little unusual for Arkansas, Higgins said.
He said there are some counties in Arkansas with similar ordinances, but they’re not in the majority.
This ordnance will “give the sheriff’s office teeth,” when answering animal control calls, Higgins said.
“Right now they respond to every call, but they can’t do anything about it. If someone complains about a dog chasing their cows, they respond, but can’t do anything but write a report on it,” Higgins said.
All fines, which start at $50, will be designated to the $800,000 fund for a future shelter, a helpful measure for increasing and hopefully maintaining a revenue stream for a shelter’s yearly operation.
ANIMAL CONTROL AT PRESENT
An unorthodox partnership exists between county resident Lydia Grier, who leads Faulkner County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office.
Grier lives near Mayflower in an unincorporated part of the county, and is on every deputy’s phone when animal issues arise.
When a deputy responds to a sick, injured, loose or problem animal, a very frequent scenario according to Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock, Grier is called to pick up the animal.
Out of about four trailers on her property, and in cooperation with another sheriff’s office employee who owns a farm for cats and horses, Grier operates her organization and keeps 159 animals.
The animals are 18 equine held at the farm with more than 80 cats, and 53 dogs on her property near Mayflower.
Smaller dogs are kept inside a trailer, and larger, outside dogs are in a series of enclosures with dog houses and tarps she and a community corrections worker were placing on the sides of pens to break cold wind on a day in the last week of October.
A dozen or more dogs Grier said were infected with mange were grouped together behind one of the trailers, and dogs showing aggression were kept at a corner of the property.
Some dogs in the series of cages are not up for adoption and are being held in the county’s custody, she said, pending court animal cruelty cases.
Community service workers go to Grier’s property and work alongside Grier and her son to clean and maintenance pens, and to feed and walk animals.
Grier said she works day and night, and she responds to FCSO deputies’ calls at most hours.
She has rarely said no, Shock said, and added she has “saved” them numerous times.
But Grier said the current situation is not ideal. She has help and donations, but animals come in fast and often they’re sick or injured.
She needs about $3,500 more to afford a poll barn to get dogs under a stable and permanent structure.
She said the sheriff’s office calls her for animal control issues because deputies know she will respond and will take the animals off their hands.
In frustration she said the Quorum Court is “a laugh.”
“I have no faith in the Quorum Court. I’ve seen proposals and ordinances. They want to merge with the city shelter but they’re as busy as they can be,” Grier said.
Her idea is a mandatory tax for county residents and a comprehensive animal control program that includes ordinances with strict penalties to be enforced by sheriff’s deputies and a larger FCSO budget to provide more deputies to respond solely to animal calls.
Once the ordinance and penalties are in place, Grier said, the Quorum Court should “buck up and make a mandatory tax.”
“Every organization has been before the Quorum Court, and it falls on deaf ears. They expect the voluntary tax to support it, but with the economy the way it is people aren’t donating. Money is tight for everyone,” she said.
There won’t be a shelter this winter, and Grier is making preparations for the animals that will weather there on the property. Food is in good supply, but money is not.
Other animal groups are in similar straits, according to Human Society adoption coordinator Judi Standridge. She said the amount of animals make it so that there are never enough foster homes to meet the demand.
IF YOU DON’T COMPLY, YOU’LL PAY
Higgins said before an animal shelter can come to pass, an ordinance needs to be in place to support enforcement of control laws.
The second phase is to apply the ordinance while developing a concept for a shelter and a revenue stream to support it, Higgins said.
Licensing fees and penalty payments will be part of the revenue stream, a change Higgins said has inspired negative feedback from his constituents.
“For me personally, the most frustrating aspect of working with the animal welfare issue is that most of our efforts and funding would be unnecessary if animal owners would just take responsibility for their own animals,” he said. “As the draft animal control ordinance is written, it will have minimal impact on responsible animal owners in Faulkner County. Unfortunately, it’s a shame that we have so many people in our community who are not responsible animal owners and we are having to consider spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to deal with this issue. I believe it is important that irresponsible animal owners be held accountable through enforcement of the ordinance.”
Higgins said he wanted to reemphasize that if county residents maintain their own animals, the new ordinance will not cause them problems.
Shock said the sheriff’s office and deputies are behind the ordinance with full support.
“If you don’t maintain your animals, the sheriff’s department will come after you,” Higgins said. “If you don’t maintain your animals, you’re going to have a problem with this ordinance.”
The ordinance draft passed committee last week and will be presented to the full Quorum Court in regular session Tuesday.
(Staff writer Courtney Spradlin can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1236, or on Twitter @Courtneyism. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)