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Pet tax would pay to spay, neuter

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Commissioner Joy Bishop

Wilson County's $2 pet tax has had a confusing history, but understanding it may be important since it's likely to be back on the Wilson County Commission agenda soon. And although a decision four years ago to stop collecting the tax was made by a simple majority of the commission, supporters believe it should have needed a two-thirds vote to go out of effect.

In 2014, the commission debated whether to reinstate the tax - which assessed all pet owners in the county, including those inside city limits, $2 per dog or cat per year.

However, the debate ended with the commission sending the resolution to be reviewed by its Animal Control Committee instead of taking any immediate action on the proposed reinstatement.

Passed as private act

First passed as a private act of the state legislature for Wilson County following a referendum of the county's voters in 1980, the pet tax was then approved by a two-thirds vote of the county commission in 1981.

In its 32nd year, collection of the tax was repealed in 2013 by the county commission, but the ordinance remains on the books, according to County Mayor Randall Hutto.

Although it takes a two-thirds majority vote by the commission to actually repeal a private act passed by the legislature, a simple 13-vote majority can vote not to collect it, the mayor explains.

Pet tax revenues had been going to New Leash on Life, but it isn't the only group in the county serving animals, Hutto also points out.

'Tax to just one group?'

"I believe that New Leash on Life serves an excellent purpose in the county," he says. "But so do the others. For me to consider giving a tax to just one group, it would have to offer a service not available elsewhere."

In an interview, Hutto emphasized that if New Leash had a plan to provide spay and neuter services for the whole county, with a sliding fee schedule, he could support collecting the tax.

But according to District 24 Commissioner Joy Bishop, the funding is desperately needed for just that reason.

In September, Bishop gave the Wilson County Humane Society $700,000 to fund a new spay and neuter clinic next to the New Leash shelter off Baddour Parkway just north of Don Fox Park. The Humane Society decided to call it the Joy Clinic.

'A clinic for all agencies'

The clinic will serve both low-income pet owners and the three Animal Control agencies in the county (Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, and Wilson County), since none of the three have spay and neuter programs, according to Angela Chapman, executive director of New Leash.

"We need any support we can get, and we'll use the funds for whatever the agency specifies," Chapman promises. "We'd handle it like a grant."

But the spay and neuter clinic will still need "a reliable revenue source" to operate, Bishop points out.

Nor is this new opportunity for the county's stray and feral dog-and-cat problem to be addressed the first time the pet tax has been focused on spaying and neutering, Bishop says. In fact, that was a big part of its original purpose when the voters approved it and the legislature and commission adopted it.

'Originally for New Leash'

Bishop explains that the pet tax was originally designated to fund New Leash, which was providing an affordable spay and neuter program for owned pets and stray animals in the county.

New Leash - operated by the Wilson County Humane Society - also shelters animals waiting to be adopted. The pet tax program was defunded in 2013 when the county commission decided that the county Animal Control Shelter is all that is needed.

District 9 Commissioner Sara Patton, who has supported collection of the tax, says her district badly needs both New Leash and the county Animal Control program. "They serve two different needs," she says.

Until 2013, Bishop says, New Leash was significantly slowing down the growth in the number of strays by spaying females - while the county itself has no spaying and neutering program and doesn't pick up cats at all, according to Bishop.

'6,000 pups, kittens in 6 years'

"One pair of stray dogs will produce 6,000 animals in a period of six years," Bishop describes - and stray cats can produce a similar number of offspring.

But since the 2013 defunding, New Leash has had to greatly curtail its spay and neuter services, only providing a mobile clinic funded by various grants. The lack of money has meant no funds to pay for supplies or salaries needed to continue the surgery that was running from the shelter.

The Joy Clinic would provide those services and expand them - if it is financially able to open as scheduled in April.

Back in 2014, when Bishop asked the commission to reinstate collection of the pet tax, District 22 Commissioner Wendell Marlowe, chair of the Animal Control Committee, moved to send the matter to the committee - and failed to support it there.

Now, however, Marlowe said in an interview that if there's an agreement to spend the tax solely for spaying and neutering, he "could support that."

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