Zak Johnson walks past kennels at the Humane Educational Society on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The century-old facility, which was formerly an orphanage, has had a range of problems including crumbling walls, bowed ceilings and rain inside the building.

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New animal shelter

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Commissioner Greg Martin spent Tuesday thinking about the Hamilton County Commission's vote Wednesday on investing up to $10 million in tax revenue for a new Chattanooga Humane Education Society animal shelter.

In between calls, he was bagging groceries on behalf of the United Way at the Food City in Hixson.

"I am making calls and doing my due diligence in preparation for [Wednesday]," he said.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger recommended the expenditure to the commissioners last week and said up to $10 million would come from a capital projects fund created when the commission approved its first property tax increase in a decade on Sept. 6, 2017.

The one-time windfall was created because of the timeframe between the time the county issued the bonds in March 2018 and when projects funded by the tax increase required debt service payments.

The Humane Educational Society provides animal control services for unincorporated areas of Hamilton County as well as most smaller cities in the county, and data shows the agency has improved its performance in all major categories over the past five years. The county pays the humane society $620,970 annually, a third of its $1.9 million budget. The private nonprofit organization, which raises more than $1 million in private donations annually, took in 4,929 animals in 2017. Seventy-two percent of those animals came from unincorporated Hamilton County, and the rest from smaller municipalities.

The HES has operated at its current location on Highland Park Avenue for 118 years, and plans are to build a 36,000-square-foot animal shelter on 6.8 acres in the area of Bonny Oaks Drive and Highway 153. The cost is estimated at $13 million.

Organization leaders say they have been talking with Coppinger about a new facility since 2015, when the county doubled its contribution to the society. Supporters of the proposal have aggressively lobbied commissioners over the past three weeks after the proposal became public, and they are expected to pack the commission chambers for the second time in eight days Wednesday. Barring new information, a majority of the commissioners indicate they are supportive of the proposal.

Commissioner Tim Boyd, who last week strongly opposed the resolution, said Tuesday he would pass rather than vote against the resolution based on the conditions he saw Saturday when he toured the facility with Director Bob Citrullo.

"While I realize something must be done to resolve the issue at the animal shelter, I will not oppose the resolution based on the need to treat animals humanely," Boyd said. "But I will not vote 'yes,' because Mayor Coppinger's process for determining where to spend the windfall from the tax increase did not include the commissioners and the taxpayers they represent. There are still a lot of questions the shelter folks need to answer."

Commissioner Warren Mackey, who expressed concerns last week over investing in the animal shelter versus human needs, said he would "reluctantly" support the resolution if it has the support of Coppinger, but he joined other commissioners in continuing to gather information Tuesday.

"This group has done a fabulous job of filling up the inbox," Mackey said. "They targeted me with my friends, and they have shown as much support to get this through as any organization I have seen."

Other commissioners said:

» "I have worked with Bob for a long time, am a supporter of how Bob runs this service and agree with all that this facility has to be replaced," said Commission Chairman Sabrena Smedley, who met with Coppinger and Citrullo in 2015 to discuss potential sites for the society shelter. "Still, I want to be fair and go through the process tomorrow and hear what others have to say."

» "There is no question, none, that something has to be done," said Commissioner Chip Baker, who first learned of the proposal on Sept. 7, "but there are still some people I want to talk with."

» "I just want to do the best thing for the people of Hamilton County," said Commissioner David Sharpe. "I didn't know anything about this project until a few weeks ago, and I still would like more information. What I do know is that the conditions out there are unacceptable."

» "We will get more information at the meeting, and that is good," said Commission Vice Chairman Randy Fairbanks. "Unless someone comes forward and makes an argument good enough to cause a delay, which I consider a small possibility, I will support the resolution."

Commissioner Katherlyn Geter said previously she would support the project, and Commissioner Chester Bankston said he would reserve his comments for the meeting.

"I'll have plenty to say," Bankston said.

The Hamilton County Commission meets at 9:30 a.m. on the fourth floor of the Hamilton County Courthouse at 625 Georgia Ave.

Contact Davis Lundy at