With Great Plains SPCA’s sudden departure, what will happen to the second-largest animal shelter in the metro?

Zach Bauman

Hopes were high when the new animal shelter opened at the rural edge of Independence in 2013.

The shelter, built through an agreement between Jackson County and the City of Independence, seemed to be the answer to the area’s stray animal problem. It would be “no-kill,” with a focus on foster homes for animals, spaying and neutering, and educational programs aimed at helping lower income people keep their pets.

And it was beautiful: a rustic design with three times the space of the decrepit Independence animal control space.

Six years later, that promise has dimmed. A series of funding emergencies led to the shelter operator, Great Plains SPCA, shedding board members and making major cutbacks. Then, in January, Great Plains stunned government and animal welfare officials by announcing it would no longer run the facility past July — despite the fact that it had just successfully bid to run the Independence shelter through the end of 2022, with a guarantee of about $550,000 from the city and $130,000 for utilities from the county.

Some assumed Great Plains’ announcement in January was a bargaining ploy. But as time ticked on with no further comments from Great Plains, it became apparent that it was not.

Now, with the nonprofit’s last day as operator fast approaching, it’s still not clear who will run the second-largest animal shelter in the metro. No one directly involved is commenting. There have been no public requests for bids. When asked, city and county spokespeople, and even Independence Mayor Eileen Weir, deliver bland, robotic responses about “continuing to work together to ensure a smooth transition of the shelter for our residents” and “determining the appropriate manner for moving forward.” Good luck getting much beyond that.

In a way, the way things look today — a city-county partnership falling apart at the seams — isn’t so different from the state of things in 2012.

Back then, the locals were wondering why a fully built animal shelter, nice enough to be mistaken by satellite for a Bass Pro Shops, was sitting empty past its expected opening date.

The shelter was a $5.3 million, county-owned building sitting on six acres of land belonging to Independence. The original plan was for Independence’s animal services to run it, with the county paying utilities. The idea was that the city, which didn’t want to have to pay to build something to replace its three-decades-old, 7,100-square-foot shelter, would get a new building paid for by the county. The county, which didn’t want to pay to run an animal shelter for its unincorporated areas, would have the city to run it.

As it turned out, that optimistic picture of governmental harmony was the first thing to falter. The county balked on the deal at the very last minute, right before the shelter was supposed to open. Jackson County Legislator Dennis Waits, a big backer of animal welfare causes and the shared shelter idea, wanted Great Plains to run it instead of Independence. The city, he said, had not budgeted enough money for it to be run as a true no-kill shelter.

At the time, Great Plains — formed in 2011 from the merger of two other animal welfare groups — was a new organization on an upward trajectory. Its CEO, Courtney Thomas, was well-regarded in the animal adoption world. She came from Wayside Waifs, where, as chief operating officer, she reduced the euthanasia rate from 72 percent to 6 percent, and grew Wayside Waifs from a $1.2 million to a $4.3 million agency, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Great Plains also had considerable backing from Charles Laue, a Leawood investment firm founder who is now chair of the national Humane Society Legislative Fund board. Two of Laue’s foundations, Ringo’s Fund and the Quinn Foundation, have been major contributors to Great Plains.

Dennis Waits

Waits was convinced Great Plains and Thomas could do a better job. Independence officials objected, saying they could do as well for less than Great Plains. But they were overruled, and ended up footing the bill for Great Plains to run the shelter.

From that point on, the bickering almost never stopped. Waits now puts most of the blame at Independence’s feet.

“Great Plains is a wonderful organization that is very fortunate to have some people there helping to underwrite [expenses],” he says. But the city underfunded the nonprofit every year by hundreds of thousands, Waits argues.

What it boils down to is that Independence underestimated by about half the number of animals its animal control officers would bring to the shelter, Waits says. Since the city’s contract was based on that number, Great Plains regularly had a shortfall that the county legislature, at Waits’ urging, at least partially filled.

The first crisis occurred less than a year after the shelter opened. An unexpected surge of cats caused operators to scramble to close a potential $735,000 gap in its budget. In 2014, the city had to temporarily open an old fire station to take in cats because state inspectors said the shelter couldn’t have 400 cats in a space meant for 175. Then, in 2015, Independence’s health advisory board recommended that the city sue Jackson County because the shelter was refusing to take all the cats. (The suit never happened.)

Laue did not respond to The Pitch’s interview requests through LinkedIn and the Humane Society. Thomas, the former CEO who now heads the local business women’s group Central Exchange, said she’d prefer not to be mentioned in the story but referred The Pitch to other employees.

One of those former employees, Beth Pauley, was adoption supervisor at the Independence shelter and later an executive assistant working with Thomas. She agrees with Waits’ take. One problem, Pauley says, was the city’s now-defunct ordinance requiring that cats be leashed while outdoors.

“The ordinance disempowered people in the community to care for feral cat colonies,” she says. “Under that ordinance, animal control would bring in any stray cat they saw. “

Pauley also thinks the ordinance was too aggressively enforced.

“I don’t think it would have been [enforced so strictly] if the city was managing the shelter,” she says.

The shelter, overwhelmed with cats, had to put a temporary stop on accepting them.

“It was a very desperate time,” Pauley recalls. “Our space had the highest amount of animals it had in its entire history. I think we felt like we were at a place where we definitely could not manage this any longer.”

These issues began to take a toll. Great Plains was also running a shelter in Merriam, Ks. and by some accounts had become the largest animal welfare group in the area. But tax returns show that its financial picture had started to waver.

The organization, as a non-profit, never had an especially comfortable cushion. But by 2015, total revenues outstripped expenses by less than $100,000. The next year’s returns were even worse, with about $724,000 more in expenses than the organization took in. In 2017, the last returns available, Great Plains saw a rebound, owing to it closing the deteriorating Animal Haven building in Merriam the previous year. But that decision cut the amount of space Great Plains had for new animals. It eventually had to tell some cities with which it contracted that it was limiting cat intakes to the sick or injured, and would no longer provide a 10-day observation for rabies for dogs that had bitten.

At the same time, Great Plains was paying its executives a whole lot more. In its early years, the organization never topped $175,000 in executive pay, with only a chief executive officer and chief financial officer. By 2015, though, that figure rose to $269,330, with the addition of a CEO/VP position. A year later, Great Plains added even more high-level spots to the roster, including a chief operations officer for the Independence shelter that made $66,459, and a chief development officer earning $81,591.

That brought the grand total for executive-level positions to $457,237. By comparison, the total salary laid out for 212 employees was about $3.4 million.

The next two years saw a mass exodus of those officers. Thomas left at the end of 2016, followed by most of the top staff. Pauley, who was not in the top tier of officers, also chose that year to leave.

Thomas was being worn down by the strains of the job: constant fundraising and always being on call saving animals, Pauley says. As for the others who left, “I can’t speak for the rest of the staff who left, but for me it was because of uncertainty around who the next CEO was going to be,” Pauley says.

Then Waits stepped down from his spot on the county legislature. Waits had always been a staunch champion who would fight for more county funds for the shelter. He, too, acknowledges his departure was a factor in the shelter’s decision.

“Finally Great Plains just got to the point that they were no longer willing to underwrite the shortfall,” he says.

So, who’s going to step in? Most animal welfare organizations already have contracts with cities to provide services. KC Pet Project, which handles KCMO, says it hasn’t entered into any negotiations, though it would take a look at a request for proposals, if one ever is issued. Spay & Neuter Kansas City sent an informal message to Independence asking to be included in the conversation, but has not heard back, CEO Michelle Rivera tells The Pitch.

So far, no public bidding process has been initiated, though county spokeswoman Marshanna Hester didn’t rule one out. But the perception is that Independence wants to run the shelter itself.

The question, Waits says, is whether the city is willing to run it as a true no-kill shelter.

No-kill doesn’t mean literally no animals are ever euthanized. Some very sick or dangerous animals end up being mercy killed even in no-kill shelters, Pauley says. But everyone agrees that running a shelter as no-kill is a very expensive proposition. With the euthanasia rate limited to less than 10 percent, the shelters fill up quickly. Non-lethal alternatives, like foster homes, must be found. Solving the overflow problem can even involve sending excess cats to new homes in places as far away as Oregon, as Great Plains has done to avoid the higher cost of keeping them in the shelter.

Shelter operators that don’t want to do that can cheat a little by getting creative with how they categorize animals, Waits says. For example, a dog freaking out about being abandoned could be labeled “dangerous” — when really it just needed time to get used to the shelter, he says.

Waits, never a fan of the Independence operation, questions the city’s commitment to no-kill, based on its track record.

“I’d be very doubtful Independence could do it themselves,” he says. “They did a terrible job for years. It got to be so horrible people that would go in and adopt [the same day] because if you didn’t adopt that day [the animal] would be euthanized the next day.”

Other private agencies might not have the capacity to take on an operation the size of Independence, either, Waits says. That would leave Independence with a choice of going back to the table and working with Great Plains to get the costs down, or increasing its budget.

Not everyone hopes for Great Plains to continue, though. Tanner Lightfoot, outreach manager of the urban core animal advocacy group Chain of Hope, soured on Great Plains because they were turning so many animals away. “I don’t think it could get worse than it was under Great Plains,” he says.

Other animal advocates say the city and county should be more transparent about the changeover.

“I think they should put out an RFP and let agencies respond,” Pauley says. “I know the community will want it to be a no-kill shelter, so the question the community has is: What is the City of Independence going to do to make sure pets are not being unnecessarily euthanized? If the city can respond to that and come up with the same solutions we’ve seen other agencies [such as Kansas City Pet Project and Great Plains] do, they would be a great fit for it.”

Waits says his “hope would be that it would continue to run as a no-kill shelter in the days ahead and Independence would find a way to fund it or find a private entity.”

But money will always be an issue, he says: “There’s never enough money.”

On Twitter: @roxiehammill. 

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