February 20, 2011 in City

City-owned warehouse seen as ideal for regional animal shelter

Whether Spokane will join remains unclear
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A regional task force believes it has found the perfect site for a new animal-control shelter if not a way to pay for it.

Numerous questions remain unanswered, but Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke says one possibility is a voter-approved property tax levy.

Unlike a traditional 20-year bond measure or a special levy, which require 60 percent approval, a regular levy can be approved with a simple majority.

Because Spokane County’s property tax rate is well below the statutory maximum, voters could authorize a relatively short-term tax increase by lifting the 1 percent cap on annual levy growth.

Rough calculations indicate a tax of 4 to 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value could pay for a $10 million project in nine years. Officials say such a levy might cost the owner of a $200,000 home around $8 a year.

“If our partners say they’re comfortable going forward, that puts the county in a much better position to make this decision,” Mielke said.

The Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service has contracts with Spokane Valley, Cheney, Millwood and Liberty Lake, and the group is working to bring Spokane into the system.

Spokane’s animal-control provider, SpokAnimal C.A.R.E., has asked to end its contract.

The key to avoiding a long-term bond measure on a shelter large enough to accommodate Spokane is a warehouse the city owns at 1001 N. Havana St.

The building is ideal, according to SCRAPS director Nancy Hill.

“When we made a wish list, it pretty much had everything,” Hill said.

She was looking for a centrally located site, near the Spokane-Spokane Valley border, and the warehouse is exactly on the line.

It’s highly visible, cater-corner from the county fairgrounds, and easily accessible from Interstate 90, Trent Avenue and the Freya-Market corridor.

It’s also the right size – 41,000 square feet on 6.8 acres – and is zoned appropriately. Except for a two-story office portion, the building lacks internal walls.

“It’s kind of a blank slate,” Hill said. “We would be able to take that and make it our own.”

In her mind, Hill said, she’s already moved in.

The current shelter, at 2521 N. Flora Road, is already overcrowded and can’t be enlarged. The two-acre site is at the edge of a county gravel pit, near the tail of a dead-end road and cut off by railroad tracks.

Hill said fire inspectors recently denied permission for a portable office and storage building because the only fire hydrant in the area is on the other side of the tracks. The crossing is frequently blocked by slow-moving or parked trains.

Animal-control task force members hoped to make a new shelter affordable with available revenue, but have been unable to do so.

Mielke and Gerry Gemmill, Spokane’s assistant public works director, said the city might have been able to finance the warehouse conversion if the cost hadn’t exceeded $6.3 million. But $7 million to $10 million is as close as they could get.

Officials pared an architect’s $8.3 million renovation estimate to $7 million. Hill attributed much of the savings to less costly materials and a reduction in the number of cages and air-exchangers.

Hill squeezed $350,000 out of her proposed operating budget to make the project more affordable, but it still wasn’t enough.

The biggest problem is that Spokane is obligated to reimburse state and federal agencies that paid 85 percent of the cost of the warehouse.

The property was purchased for $2.7 million as part of an ongoing project to build a Havana Street railroad overpass. The city is expected to repay whatever diminished value the property has when the bridge work is finished this winter.

Spokane could ask the funding agencies to forgive some of the debt, but internal auditor Rick Romero said the chances are slim if the property passes out of city ownership. Fair market value likely would be required.

Even if SCRAPS had to pay nearly as much as the city paid and even if city officials decide not to contract with the county program, Hill would still want the warehouse. New construction on another site was estimated to cost $15 million, she said.

Mielke and Spokane officials emphasized that the animal-control task force has reached no conclusions about how to proceed. Hill will deliver the group’s preliminary report Friday at a meeting of government officials throughout the county.

Delays on the project have caused some on the Spokane City Council to consider sticking with SpokAnimal if the nonprofit organization changes its decision to quit providing enforcement service.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref said she prefers a countywide system, but she’s open to sticking with SpokAnimal.

Councilman Bob Apple is the council’s biggest critic of regional animal control. He has said that, as long as the city treats SpokAnimal with respect, it likely would continue serving Spokane for a lower price.

“We have no problem with that provider,” Apple said.

Councilman Steve Corker said he wouldn’t support a regional animal-control solution if it requires bonding or use of money that otherwise could be used for police, fire or streets.

Corker said he’s willing to consider regional animal control, “but it’s not one of my top priorities.”

Councilman Jon Snyder said he’s encouraged by the proposal to purchase the city-owned warehouse.

“I still think that regional animal control is within our grasp,” he said.

Mielke and Hill share that sentiment, but said time is running out.

“I have put SCRAPS on hold, waiting for regionalization to come forward,” Hill said. “It’s crunch time.”

Hill said a new shelter is needed with or without Spokane, and she wants to put the issue to voters this year.

“I don’t know that I want it on the same ballot as the jail (construction proposal), but I don’t see a reason to keep it off the ballot this fall,” Mielke said.

Staff writer Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.

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