Questions for the Hancock County Commission
To the editor:
July 1 marked the 5th anniversary of the Hancock County Commission’s takeover of their county animal shelter. For 20 years, a nonprofit operated the shelter under a annually renewable contract. The county negotiated the shelter financial support level each year.
The Commission offered the nonprofit $80,000 from the county budget and the $100,000 annual excess levy funds to operate the shelter for fiscal year 2017. However, they wanted changes to the contract giving the Commission final authority over animals being destroyed at the shelter and indicated animals should be destroyed as the preferred cost control method. The nonprofit agreed to the $180,00 financial support, but could not accept the contract changes regarding destroying animals. The Commission would not negotiate the proposed changes and took over shelter operation.
Since the Commission shelter takeover, expenses have increased over $250,000 a year. This means $1.3 million in additional tax dollars has been spent operating the shelter. More importantly, the shelter animal death rate has increased over 50%.
Many county residents believe the Commission always wanted control over $350,000 in accumulated Animal Shelter Excess Levy funds. On the first day operating the shelter, the Commission requested our Prosecuting Attorney obtain a “legal opinion” from the State Attorney General regarding control of this money. In March 2017, the Attorney General issued a legal opinion stating that neither the nonprofit nor the Commission should have access to this money. The Excess Levy language stated the money was being raised for financial support of the nonprofit’s operation of the shelter, not the Commission. The nonprofit had a reputation of operating a low-kill shelter.
The Attorney General recommended the tax dollars be returned to the taxpayers of Hancock County. Apparently, he believed this was a reasonable solution. The commissioners disagree with this opinion. The opinion isn’t what they wanted to hear.
Based on documents received by a Freedom of Information Act request, the Commission has discussed filing a “Declarative Judgment” action in court to gain control and spend this levy money. When and where did this discussion occur? Commission meeting minutes do not document any such public discussion. Apparently, Commissioner Cowey, Commissioner Chek and Commissioner Davis are not fans of government transparency. Didn’t Commissioner Chek campaign on public input into government decision-making?
Why do the commissioners want control of these tax dollars the Attorney General said belongs to the taxpayers? Again, since the Commission shelter takeover, expenses have increased over $250,000 a year. The Commissioners transferred $900,000 from the “County Rainy Day Fund” to support their 2021 operating budget and an additional $600,000 is being transferred to support the recently approved budget. Aren’t “Rainy Day” funds used for unexpected emergency expenses, not to mediate a financial crisis created by bad Commission decisions?
Commissioners Cowey, Chek and Davis need to practice government transparency by discussing issues openly at public meetings. Do they expect county residents to trust and respect them when they discuss major county issues in private?