Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chattanooga: Tough times at McKamey center

Open for just seven months and running low on cash, the operators of the McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center face tough decisions.

And now they’ll have to do it without two of their top leaders.

On Monday, just a week after the center’s executive director, Dr. Amanda Wojtalik-Courter, said she would part ways with the facility, the McKamey board chairman also resigned.

Dan Alderman would not say why he was leaving, but there were signs from others close to the center’s operations that issues with finances were at the heart of both departures.

While the shelter has placed many animals in homes, officials say it’s been flooded with pets over the past seven months. With that high head count came low charitable donations and a fixed $1.1 million allocation from the city. Leaders say the center was over budget every month since it opened.

“We feel like Amanda did a wonderful job,” said Ann Ball, the former board vice chairwoman who now steps into Mr. Alderman’s position. “Just look at that building ... she’s widely respected in the community, but we need someone who is a business manager, someone who is more than a vet, and Amanda realizes that.”

Three telephone messages left by the Times Free Press seeking comment from Dr. Wojtalik-Courter were not returned over the last week.

The Chattanooga-born, Yale-educated veterinarian oversaw the construction of the $6.5 million facility on North Access Road, but the opening was not smooth.

The McKamey center almost immediately was overwhelmed by a seemingly unending flow of kittens — a usual product of summertime breeding. Then dogs at the shelter were stricken with kennel cough. In the months that followed, the center packed in 300 animals beyond its capacity.

McKamey was formed when the city announced it would pull its contract from the Hamilton County Humane Education Society and instead hand over animal collection — previously a division of the police department — as well as care and adoption services to McKamey. The Humane Society, located in Highland Park, still handles strays for the unincorporated county and a handful of outlying communities.

On Wednesday evening, the center’s board will hold its first meeting since the resignations. The center’s Web site lists a new operations manager, Paula Hurn. Ms. Ball said she wasn’t sure if the board was leaning toward hiring a full-time veterinarian to replace Dr. Wojtalik-Courter as well as someone to handle finances.


Chattanooga City Councilman Jack Benson, the center’s biggest booster on the council, said he was distressed to see animals in cages lining the 26,000-square-foot facility as the center’s population swelled beyond its intended 500-pet maximum.

Ms. Ball said there were 800 animals at the facility at one point. Both she and Mr. Benson said that sort of unyielding compassion can’t happen at a facility charged with accepting an entire city’s strays.

“We are not a no-kill shelter. We never have been. As long as you are the city’s animal shelter ... you have to take every animal that is brought to you,” Ms. Ball said. “You can’t warehouse animals. It’s not anything that anyone wants to do, but being a no-kill shelter is where we would like to be ... we are not there yet.”

Dr. Wojtalik-Courter and others have said center workers would not kill animals for space reasons. Ms. Ball said she did not know if healthy, adoptable animals had been euthanized since the facility was opened. But Mr. Benson said such measures are necessary if the facility is going to stand on its own and operate within the funds allocated by the city.

“I went over there a week or two ago and all the employees were all enthused and celebrating ... because they had just adopted a dog that had been in the shelter since July,” Mr. Benson said. “That’s wonderful, but we’re not in the kennel business. We are in the animal shelter business.”


Ms. Ball said the facility had both misjudged its expenses and run over budget, but it also had been hurt by a slowdown in charitable giving.

She said recently implemented controls are aimed at tamping down expenses between now and the end of the fiscal year. The board is working on a new financial plan, and Ms. Ball said shelter officials likely will ask the city for more money.

Mayor Ron Littlefield still supports the shelter, but he’s not promising any additional financial support, said Richard Beeland, the mayor’s spokesman.

“There were some issues with the shelter in the beginning ... and we’re working to come to a solution on those,” Mr. Beeland said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see on the funding issue.”

Mr. Benson said he would support such a request only if the shelter could show it had solid financial controls. He said the city may be able to offer a loan to the facility if it continues to run in the red.

“We can help see them through, but we want to make sure this doesn’t occur every year,” Mr. Benson said.

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