Facts, misconceptions and politics surrounding Animal Shelter project

Photo of Shelter as of August 2015.

Ascension Parish animal rights activists, along with dog/cat lovers, want a new state-of-the-art Animal Shelter; no secret there.  Many devoted extraordinary time and effort to get an Ad Valorem assessment on the ballot, and worked to generate sufficient turnout to enact a one-mill property tax over four years ago toward that goal.  Frustratingly for them, Ascension lacks the property upon which to construct such a facility without having banked sufficient cash to pay for it as yet.

It is a complex, convoluted undertaking and misunderstood by all but the most attentive proponents.

For the first decade of Ascension Home Rule there was no animal shelter to speak of.  That began to change with the advent of the 21st Century, the early days of Ascension’s population explosion which included a never before encountered number of stray cats and dogs.  Old-time methods of animal control, tried and true for many an Ascension native but barbaric to the newcomers, and a movement toward more humane Animal Control solutions began to catch on.

Little consideration was paid the animals’ well-being when the governing authority first took up the matter, though.  And, we suspect, few of we old-timers had ever heard of Companion Animal Rescue of Ascension (CARA).  That group, which would ultimately take over operations at the Parish Animal Shelter, stirred the pot and led the charge toward a reconsideration of the old ways.

It would take some time.

Consider, on February 20, 2002 Ascension’s Council adopted its first ever Animal Control Ordinance which defined Animal Control Shelter as “any facility operated by the Parish of Ascension for the purpose of impounding animals under the authority of this ordinance or state law.”  Adequate Shelter is defined by the same ordinance as:

“Facilities that are well constructed, adequate to provide shelter from the elements, and appropriate to the animal’s age and physical condition. All animals shall be able to comfortably stand at their full height, stretch out, turn around, lie down and make postural adjustments. Said shelter must be free of an excessive amount of animal waste, maintained in a safe and healthful manner and be free of standing water.”

A far cry from that which is being contemplated by the recently-created Animal Services Board and Shelter Planners of America two decades later.  Assisting with the new shelter design, the latter envisioned two options last year:

  • Option No. 1 is a 21,628 sq ft facility (16,732 enclosed) at a cost range from $6.5-9.2 million.
  • Option No. 2 (“Bare Bones”) envisions 17,195 sq ft (13,534 enclosed) with a $4.1-7.3 million.

On September 20, 2001 a unanimous council voted “to accept the low bid of $99,877 from Acadian Builders of Gonzales, Inc. for the Ascension Parish Animal and Mosquito Control Facility, Phase I.”  On May 3, 2001 then President Harold Marchand announced that “he signed a purchase agreement for a parcel of property (2.3 acres) located on Airline Hwy, approximately 300 yards south of Hwy 431, for the purchase price of $33,000” to house the first animal shelter.  The acreage was ultimately purchased for $35,000.

Council to consider $550,000 purchase of 6.24 acres for new Animal Shelter

A lot can change in two decades.

In the interim, after multiple committee and public information meetings, a unanimous council approved (September 17, 2015)…

ten-year agreement that state CARA will oversee the Animal Shelter. The Parish will continue to pick up dangerous and vicious dogs. CARA will keep adoption and tag fees and the Parish will contribute $200,000 annually. A representative for CARA reported that they would improve the structure and number of kennels, vaccinate and deworm every animal, make sure every animal that leaves is spayed or neutered, test all cats for feline leukemia and feline AIDS and maintain a relationship with all local vets.”

Moments after that meeting adjourned then Parish President Tommy Martinez cheekily gloated that CARA could have squeezed another $60,000 out of the parish.  Even that increased sum would prove to be insufficient in a few years’ time.

Rebranded CARA’s House, the existing shelter has come in for quite a bit of criticism.  Continually lobbying parish government and the governing authority, cash-strapped CARA cajoled and complained, long and loud enough to convince the powers holding the purse strings to consider a new tax.

On August 2, 2018 an 8-3 Council vote adopted the resolution ordering that an election be held on December 8, 2018…

“for the purpose of authorizing the levy and collection of a one (1) mill tax on assessed valuation of all property subject to taxation in the Parish, for a period of ten (10) years for the purpose of acquiring, constructing, improving, maintaining, and/or operating an animal shelter and/or animal control in and for the parish, including necessary equipment facilities therefor, and further making application to the State Bond Commission for consent and authorization to hold the aforesaid election.”

Animal rights advocates and CARA’s House supporters were jubilant in the expectation that funding for a new shelter was on the way if voters approved the ballot initiative.  With 16.4% turnout that approval was realized by a 353- vote margin.  Anticipated to generate $1.3 million annually, revenues are on pace to blow past the $13 million reasonably expected over the parish-wide property tax’s decade-long duration.

There was a problem, though.  Unbeknownst to the casual political observer, a category within which most of the animal lover crowd seems to fall, dedicated tax revenues collected were expended for day-to-day operations.  There is no requirement that any of the revenue need be allocated to building a new shelter and, in fact, approximately 59% of every dollar collected has been spent on something other than construction of that long-awaited structure.

The Animal Services Fund (as opposed to the Construction Fund) is anticipated to have an Ending Fund Balance of $2,440,707 by 2023’s end, available for transfer into the Construction Fund when the time is right.

Prior to 2020 (when the 2019 assessment was realized) existing operations were paid for out of the Parish’s Health Unit Fund.  The governing authority could appropriate necessary funding for the new shelter out of the fund balance which seems no certainty given recent events.

Cagnolatti motion kills Animal Shelter deal with six colleagues in support

In 2022 the tax generated just over $1.7 million, but a mere $600,000 was put aside for construction of a new shelter.

Ascension’s current Animal Services Fund budget is the first to omit operating and related expenses, allowing for $1 million to be transferred into the Shelter Construction Fund.  In 2022 the budget included $1,157,500 in expenditures compared to 2023 when that number was cut in half; $544,5000.  In 2022 $600,000 was transferred to the Construction Fund.

The increased Construction Fund appropriation is made possible by the elimination of operating expenses, including those for personnel, from the Animal Services budget.  The single largest budgetary allocation continues to be CARA’s House, $399,000 in 2022, an increase from the static $350,000 it has received in other budgets and double what the non-profit received when it took over operations of the shelter in 2015.

The stark reality…Ascension’s ever-growing animal population mandates ongoing Animal Control which has cost upwards of $1 million in some years.  The aging shelter along Airline Hwy has required attention too, in keeping with the strictures found in the 18-year old Animal Control ordinance.  It got so bad by the end of 2020 that a new administration and council spent over $300,000 renovating it, and being targeted for unwarranted criticism for the expenditure instead of saving the money for a new shelter.

But first a suitable location must be identified, appraised and purchased for no more than 10% above the appraised value, in an of itself an arduous task.

“We have looked at sites for three years,” said Ruth Phillips, Executive Assistant to the Parish President.  “Every single one of them has failed for various reasons (price being foremost).”

The Animal Services Board proposed the site pictured below, rejected by seven Council members without consideration on Thursday.

Included in the Market Value Appraisal

“We have exhausted options for this animal shelter and I would strongly consider allowing us to have the public information meeting so that everyone can get fully-informed before taking this property out of consideration,” Ruth Phillips lamented.  “I don’t have any more options at this point.  It may be years that we are waiting for another location.”