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Avery Commissioners Hear from Animal Advocates and Honor Record-Setting State Championship Wrestling Team

By Tim Gardner

The Avery Board of Commissioners heard from numerous citizens from the county about animal services and honored the Avery High wrestling team that won the 2023 state-individual-team tournament championship behind a record six state individual champions to highlight its March 6 regular monthly meeting.

Commissioners present were Vice-Chairman Tim Phillips, Dennis Aldridge, Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr. and Robert Burleson.  Chairwoman Martha Hicks was absent due to illness. 

The Board’s meeting room was jammed-packed, with most attending the meeting being those wishing to address the commissioners concerning animal services.  

The meeting opened with the commissioners adopting a resolution honoring Avery’s wrestling team, which won the 2023 North Carolina High School Athletic Association Individual-Team Tournament State Championship behind six individual champions, which establish a new state record for most individual champions form one school.

Head coach Matthew Dunn and his wrestlers attended the meeting and were called to the front of the commissioners round table to be recognized amid a loud round of applause by all there.

Several individuals addressed the commissioners during the public comment segment, disagreeing with the way Avery County has recently proposed to offer animal services.  That segment lasted approximately 45 minutes.

During a public workshop on February 22, the commissioners discussed various animal-related services and announced then that they would hire an animal cruelty investigator, work to contract with Mitchell County Animal Rescue (MCAR) to currently house abused animals and build a joint facility with MCAR to house animal cruelty cases on land provided by Mayland Community College.

Some of the attendees maintained that those measures address only cruelty cases, but not the need for shelter for stray dogs, cats and other animals requiring aid. Some also spoke out against the idea of having a joint Avery-Mitchell facility, instead favoring having one for just Avery County in addition to its current humane society building and not moving Avery County taxpayer money into other counties.

Ellie Lecka, Founder of the Avery County Animal Support organization that works through volunteers and donors, told the commissioners: “We’ve taken in more than 500 dogs and cats in just over two years (at Avery Animal Support). Only 16 of those were considered cruelty case animals by our sheriff’s office. And 15 were on one property and the other was already deceased.”

Lecka also released the following additional comments to High Country Press:

“I don’t think the solution, or a temporary solution, is hiring an animal cruelty investigator through the sheriff’s office. It’s already short staffed with more deputies leaving often. Animal services officers don’t have to be sworn law enforcement officers.  And I believe an animal services facility could be a resource for the sheriff’s office, instead of the sheriff’s office trying to add more responsibility when it can’t even find staff now. The animal services officers in Watauga County are not sworn law enforcement officers and haven’t been to police school. They are simply certified in animal control. If a case of true animal neglect comes up there, the sheriff’s office simply assists and monitors the process. 

“Mitchell County has an excellent plan to build a new animal shelter for its county. Avery County commissioners trying to pawn our county animals off on them is not possible. The Avery Humane Society also takes in well over 600, more like 800, animals annually (in addition to Avery County Animal Support).  We need our own county shelter centrally located to serve our citizens. It is my understanding this contract is very much up in the air now as more facts are brought to light. 

“My hope is Mitchell County decides to do what’s best for that county. My hope is our county commissioners listen to their voters who are advocating against this for numerous reasons, instead of doing what they’re claiming as ‘right,’ when it’s really just a way to get this off their hands. I would like to know which commissioners actually own pets, as well as the County Manager. I’m not going anywhere, I’m not shutting up, I’m only getting louder. I told Phillip Barrier (Jr., County Manager) months ago that this may be what kills me. I then reminded him that in my hospital bed, I will still be screaming for what is right. And if I can’t talk anymore, I’ll be writing it down for others to say for me.”

Kate Sull said to the commissioners at the meeting:  “We’re done turning a blind eye to these animals being starved and beaten and, in some situations, given back to their owners. That’s unacceptable.

“We need you guys (commissioners) to step up.  Our buildings are okay. We don’t need more police cars. We need animal funding services in Avery County, not Mitchell, which is about an hour away, not a neighboring county. We need to step up and take care of our animals.”

But Avery Sheriff Mike Henley noted that a special vehicle is needed for an animal cruelty investigator to use as it would be maintained to transport animals as Avery’s other law enforcement vehicles are not as ideal for such. 

Abbi Young, who is employed by the Avery County Humane Society, gave the following remarks to the commissioners during the meeting: “We pull animals from Mitchell County to save them from euthanasia every single year.  They have no room. We have two dogs in our shelter right now that came from Mitchell County a week ago, because there was no room for them to take them. It makes no sense to have a facility that is a co-facility, when we are both overrun with animals. The only thing that’s going to happen if we have co-animal services is the euthanasia numbers are going to be through the roof.”

Henley, who is designated as the individual responsible for determining whether a dog is a potentially dangerous dog, is actively involved in the process of hiring an animal cruelty investigator.  The investigator would also be a sheriff’s deputy trained to conduct animal cruelty investigations and work with abused animals in the process. 

As presented by Finance Officer Caleb Hogan during Monday’s meeting, the commissioners approved a budget amendment of $22,648.67 for immediate funding to hire an animal cruelty investigator for the remaining four months of the current 2022-2023 fiscal year.  Each fiscal year starts on July 1 and runs through June 30 of the following year. $15,465.33 of that will be used for the investigator’s salary with the remaining balance of $7,183.34 being used for that investigator’s retirement, insurance and required federal income contributions.

Phillips said the animal cruelty investigator’s position will also be included for the full twelve months in the 2023-2024 fiscal year’s budget to be released in June as it will be a permanent job.

Barrier, Jr. and County Attorney Michaelle Poore are working on an agreement to iron out its details with Mitchell County Animal Rescue (MCAR) to house any animals involved in cruelty cases through the Avery County Sheriff’s Department. Long-term, the commissioners desire to also secure an agreement with MCAR to provide animal services for all of Avery County’s needs. This will be a collaborative effort with both counties providing financial support along with private funding.

The Mayland Community College Board of Trustees have verbally agreed to allow an Avery-Mitchell County animal shelter to be built on property owned by the college. The concept is to get the shelter up and running, with MCAR having the potential to house animals for the two counties at the site. 

Mayland Community College officials have also discussed adding a veterinarian technician curriculum to the school’s current academic programs, with students also possibly being further trained, and working, at the animal shelter once it’s built.

The commissioners have collectively expressed sentiment that their recent measures—especially when all three happen–will benefit animal services in Avery County. 

“We appreciate hearing from those who spoke at the meeting about animals and we wanted to hear their concerns,” Phillips told the High Country Press. “The commissioners are doing what we think is best for the county in terms of animal services and of course, what is best for our taxpayers.”

Barrier, Jr. added that he and the commissioners have been collaborating with the Sheriff’s Department, the Avery Health Department about rabies and other animal testing, the Avery Humane Society and other animal agencies and along with hiring an animal cruelty investigator, working to contract with MCAR to currently house abused animals and ultimately having a joint facility for the two counties, Avery “can successfully handle any animal problems it encounters.”

In other business, the commissioners:

*Appointed Martha Hicks to represent the Board of Commissioners on the Blue Ridge Partnership for Children Board.

*Appointed Edith “Dedy” Traver, Pat Dale, Eron Thiele, Nancy Owen and David Smith to the Board of Equalization and Review. And then approved Travor to serve as its Chairwoman.

*Approved Tax Administrator Andrea Turbyfill’s report that February 2023 tax collections in the county totaled $282,925.95.

*Approved the remainder of Hogan’s report, which included that the county’s Department of Emergency Management has received $115,353.93 from the Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) for various expenses related to the Coronavirus (COVID) Pandemic response.

All votes cast by the commissioners during the meeting were approved by a 4-0 vote.

The commissioners will hold their next regular monthly public meeting on Monday, April 3, beginning at 3:30 p.m. and another budget workshop public meeting on Thursday, April 27, starting at 1:00 p.m.  Both meetings will be held in their Board Room Suite on the top floor of the County Administration Building, located at 175 Linville Street in Newland.