BOONE – For 50 years, the Watauga County Humane Society has taken care of the county’s stray pets, those given up by owners and much more. However, the society says it’s facing an upcoming financial hurdle that could severely impact the nonprofit.
The building that currently houses the humane society, the 17,000-square-foot Irma Baker Lyons Adoption and Education Center, opened in 2011. The nonprofit at that time took over animal intake and housing services from Watauga County Animal Control Center and expanded the total number of dogs and cats that could be held at any one time. The government entity, now known as the Watauga County Department of Animal Care and Control, is responsible for investigating animal cruelty, enforcing existing animal control laws and managing stray animals.
The building was originally slated to cost $2.4 million, but Charles Duke, who is currently the vice president of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said the costs ended up around $3 million. In 2012, the humane society refinanced its mortgage to cut down its interest rate from 7 percent to 3.85 percent, according to Duke.
“It was eating us alive,” Duke said of the 7 percent rate.
Since refinancing, Duke said the nonprofit has whittled down the mortgage balance from around a million to roughly $400,000. However, coming up in the first half of 2020, a balloon payment will be due for the remaining balance, which Duke and longtime volunteer and board President Alice Roess say the organization currently could not make.
“If we cannot come up with it, we’ll have to refinance,” Duke said. “And there’s no guarantee we could refinance at the current (interest) rate, which is very favorable. We don’t know what the market will look like in 2020.”
Closing out the mortgage would be a huge relief to the society, which says it could redirect the roughly $7,500 in monthly payments to more services and building upkeep.
According to Watauga Humane Society’s 2016 tax returns, the latest available, the organization ended the year with $329,701 in non-interest-bearing cash. Duke said currently, the reserve fund is around $200,000, which would cover three months of expenses in case of a financial emergency.
Duke said the board might choose to dip into those reserve funds to help pay off the remaining balance.
When asking people to donate, Roess and Duke said they’re going up against bad information.
“A lot of people have the misconception that the county pays all our bills,” Roess said.
The organization’s current operating expenses a year are $760,000, Roess said. Out of that, Watauga County gives $84,000 a year, or just over 11 percent. In 2009, the county agreed to annually grant the humane society $75,000 with a Consumer Price Index escalator each year to shelter animals that wind up in county custody.
In spring 2012, less than a year after opening, the humane society asked for an additional $150,000 from the county to cover unanticipated costs. The county ended up allocating an additional $18,750.
Operating expenses include the mortgage payments, salaries and wages to staff, supplies, utilities and maintenance. The board of directors are all volunteers.
Having to raise most of the funds themselves, Roess says the organization basically lives paycheck to paycheck.
“We operate on a razor’s edge,” Roess said.
The organization is constantly fundraising through its Bare Bones Boutique Thrift Shop, located at 2670 Old U.S. 421 South, spay/neuter fees, adoption fees and various events throughout the year.
One of those funding sources, the Arko Dog Park, operating since 2006, is currently undergoing renovations due to issues with standing water. Ashlee Yepez, humane society director of operations and animal welfare, said the planned reopening will be held in mid-July with a grand reopening ceremony.
“Renovations include french drains, concrete pads around the spigots and hydro seeding to solve standing water and mud issues,” the Watauga Humane Society’s website states.
In the last couple of years, Duke has said the building has encountered multiple issues. Heating and cooling issues have popped up, resulting in actions such as volunteers taking animals home with them for a night and staff staying at the center with propane heaters during cold spells.
In February 2018, Duke told the Watauga County Commissioners that the original building plans called for the installation of two boilers, but only one was installed.
“(The one boiler) wasn’t enough to keep the building heated and cooled in a proper way,” Yepez said. “We had fans installed a while back to keep our lobbies and kennels cool.”
“There are places where decisions were made (in the building’s construction) based on cost and not putting in the highest quality of stuff,” Duke said.
Other recent costly repairs include upkeep on the kennel flooring, filtration system, paving the previous dirt road leading to the center and other general maintenance.
“We’ve had a lot of pretty-expensive maintenance happening at our building,” Yepez said.
So far in 2019, the Watauga Humane Society has seen 483 animals adopted, as of June 6, and keeps a very low euthanasia rate, only used in extreme cases.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we have a 95 percent placement rate,” Duke said.
Celebrating 50 years
Starting now through the first half of 2020, the Watauga Humane Society will be celebrating 50 years of operation.
“I think it’s a significant accomplishment because the existence of the humane society depends on assistance from volunteers and cooperation from the county in this particular case that would otherwise go unmet,” Duke said.
Roess said that part of the year-long celebration includes all-gold everything, from stickers to decorations.
The nonprofit’s annual mail appeal, which lists the different events and causes for patrons to support, will be mailed out by mid-June, Roess said.
Adoption hours at the humane society are Tuesday through Sunday, 12:30-5 p.m.
The 36th annual Watauga Humane Society rummage sale will take place Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9-10, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., respectively. The location is to be announced, according to Yepez.
For more information on the Watauga Humane Society, visit wataugahumane.org/home and click on the paw that says “donate” to direct a donation to specific programs or funds.