Cornelius is restructuring how it manages its animal shelter to ensure staff and volunteers are following consistent procedures and regulations.
Bence Hoyle, the Cornelius police chief since 2007, sent out a memo on May 7 outlining a variety of changes at the Cornelius Animal Shelter.
In the memo, he said that since the new shelter facility opened last fall, it has been a struggle to define the relationship between the Cornelius Animal Shelter Alliance, the police department responsible for meeting state and town requirements, and volunteers.
CASA, the shelter's supporting nonprofit organization, helped raise more than half of the money for the new $550,000 facility. It also has about 120 volunteers who contribute regularly.
Never miss a local story.
One of the main issues that spurred this change was that volunteers were e-mailing complaints about shelter policy to town board members and the chief, stirring debate while volunteering at the shelter. This debate created a conflicted/negative working environment and caused confusion about procedures among volunteers and staff.
"I bet I spent 35 percent of my time in the last year on shelter issues," said Hoyle. "I take full responsibility for the way the shelter got, and I'm taking full responsibility to fix it. I'm bound and determined to make it work because I think the shelter is a good thing."
The new plan, which includes an official grievance process, trims the number of volunteers to about 20; limits volunteer access to the shelter by only accommodating town staff or certified volunteers; and specifies that day-to-day operations be handled by two animal control officers, who now have more decision-making authority.
In the past, animal control officers had to run things up the chain of command, and Hoyle said responses were taking up too much of his time.
The police chief, an animal lover with two adopted pets, said he has to look at things more from a public health and safety standpoint than an animal-rights standpoint.
Though emotional at times, decisions about which animals are unadoptable - and therefore possibly euthanized at another facility - have to be left up to a veterinarian or animal control officers with public health and safety in mind, he said.
"The evolution from how we operated when the shelter was only outdoor kennels and what we have now has probably been the most difficult transition," said Hoyle in the memo. "Because as our ability to comply with standards increased, the expectation greatly increased as well.
"CASA makes a difference between a good shelter and great shelter, but we had to have one group making policy decisions and that had to be at the shelter level. Every decision can't be debated openly. While some may have been legitimate debates, volunteers can't work against us and expect us to give them keys to the heart of the operation."
The Cornelius Animal Shelter has existed in some form since 1988. Its former outdoor facility used the past seven years consisted of 12 stacked cat cages and five dog runs on a concrete pad. Both were covered by a system of tarps and poles barricaded by bales of straw that helped block the wind.
The 3,265-square-foot facility was paid for with private donations raised by CASA and others, and $200,000 from the town.
The shelter's volunteer coordinator is Bruce Forrest. The 64-year-old, along with other volunteers, helped establish the nonprofit CASA. He is the chairman and president of CASA, a six-member board that helps with adoptions and fostering, day-to-day operations, fundraising and other duties.
While CASA will no longer be involved in management of facility, Forrest said the group will continue to build on its existing efforts, including its animal wellness program, paying for intake exams and other veterinarian-related expenses, and maintaining the adoption website.
"CASA and volunteers recognize the town has every right to make a decision on how they want to manage the facility," Forrest said, speaking on behalf of the board. "While we may not agree with all aspects of the change, we've already pledged our full cooperation in making the transition as seamless and professional as possible.
Jim Bensman, a commissioner for the last nine years, has been a long supporter of the shelter, and he led the charge for building a new facility. He and his wife, Celia, also have run a boarding facility for dogs for the last five years, so he said he understands the complexity behind caring for animals.
"Volunteers took care of animals and raised funds for the shelter, but when we got into running it, it was a huge learning experience," Bensman said. "Running a shelter according to state law and regulations was very different than feeding animals in a few kennels under a tent.
"It became a real challenge to run it as a town department with a large number of volunteers," he said. "We felt we needed to make it clear, the person in charge was the chief of police."
With the new changes, past and future volunteers will have to attend a new, mandatory training program to become certified volunteers. It will be taught with the help of North Mecklenburg Animal Hospital staff and will cover the shelter's policies, philosophy and procedures.
"Any facility has to be operated by people who are trained and knowledgeable in what the law, regulations and procedures are," Bensman said. "All we're trying to do is create a manageable number of people to do this. They were all well-meaning, but improperly trained people or those who misunderstand regulations can cause mix-ups.
"The only reason Cornelius is able to have the shelter is because the police chief and his staff want to do it," Bensman said. "Not everyone is going to be happy with the chief and his decisions, but we are holding him responsible for this facility. And everyone is learning. Believe me."