This story was updated Nov. 14, 2018, at 5 p.m. with more information.
First-term Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter wasn't thinking about a tour of the Humane Educational Society when she dressed for the commission meeting Wednesday, and her shoes were a dangerous match for the narrow passages and damp concrete floors in the 118-year-old facility.
Geter, along with commissioners Greg Martin and David Sharpe, toured the building with HES Executive Director Bob Citrullo after Wednesday's meeting, where the nonprofit shelter requested $10 million in capital funds for a new building near Bonny Oaks and Highway 153.
Footwear aside, Geter saw more than enough to garner her support for the project.
"Everybody deserves better than this," Geter said. "The staff, the volunteers, the animals all deserve better than this. This is very sad."
Geter's experience at the shelter backed up the "seeing is believing" message delivered by Citrullo, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and several commissioners during the morning agenda session. A resolution to turn over the $10 million is up for a vote next Wednesday. Red-clad HES supporters packed the commission room Wednesday, saying they would return next week for the vote.
"It rains more inside the facility than outside, literally," Citrullo said. "You need an umbrella to walk inside."
HES officials are proposing to build a 35,000-square-foot animal shelter on 6.8 acres more centrally located in the county at an estimated cost of $13 million. Citrullo said the smaller municipalities HES serves in Hamilton County also are being asked to contribute to the capital project. The remaining funds will be raised by HES, which Citrullo said amounts to $1 million annually.
Coppinger said the $10 million will come from money generated by the 2017 property tax increase. He said the county was able to set aside $14 million for capital projects because it did not have to pay debt service in the first year on many school projects funded by the tax increase.
"It seemed to me to be the perfect time to consider addressing this need," Coppinger said.
Commission Chairman Sabrena Smedley and Vice Chairman Randy Fairbanks earlier had toured the HES building at 212 N. Highland Park, and both urged all commissioners to visit the shelter before the vote.
"I was not ready for what I saw when I went over there," Fairbanks said. "It was pitiful. My whole attitude changed once I viewed the place."
Citrullo said HES is cost-effective, citing a $6 per capita cost for the county versus $11.60 for East Ridge and $9.29 for Chattanooga. HES serves the county's unincorporated areas of Hamilton County as well as Collegedale, Soddy-Daisy, Red Bank, Lakesite and Ridgeside.
Citrullo said HES adoptions increased from 812 in 2013 to 2,308 in 2017, and euthanization fell from 1,411 in 2013 to 521 last year. Citrullo said 72 percent of the animals served by HES came from unincorporated Hamilton County and the remaining 28 percent from the smaller municipalities.
"It has always been easier to euthanize than to save," he said.
Commissioner Tim Boyd questioned prioritizing a new animal shelter with the need for a new training facility for law enforcement, an 11 percent increase in salaries at HES in the current budget year, the proposed cost for the facility and double taxation for city residents who are not served by HES.
"Just blows my mind," Boyd said. "I can't be for this in any fashion until we have a training facility for our police officers."
Coppinger quickly refuted Boyd, saying the public needs to know that law enforcement officers have the training they need, and the issue was when they would get a new shooting range.
"This project is not getting in the way of any other projects in Hamilton County like the firing range," Coppinger said. "This project stands on its own merits. We have a responsibility to provide the care for these animals and to meet what the Health Department is requiring."
Citrullo said the HES budget is $1.8 million annually, including $620,970 from Hamilton County.
"I think the commissioners know and understand our situation and the services we provide," Citrullo said after the meeting. "They know we are operating at a low cost to them and I know we get support when they come out and see the facility."
Citrullo said a new shelter would include needed surgical facilities to spay and neuter animals, as well as allowing HES to provide community education, increase adoptions and improve response when law enforcement needs HES services.
"We can't do education at our current facility because it is not safe to bring children into," Citrullo said. "That will change with the new building."