DEMOREST — The Demorest City Council has postponed action on an intergovernmental agreement with Habersham County for the county to provide animal control services to the city.
That’s because this year’s agreement contains a 97-percent cost increase to the city — additional cost that was not anticipated when the city set its budget.
During last week’s city council work session, City Manager Kristi S. Williams said the intergovernmental agreement with the county for 2018 was $8,121, but the amount included for 2019 is $16,007.35.
The mayor and council last week asked Williams and Mayor Rick Austin to meet with County Manager Phil Sutton to get more information about the rationale for the cost increase, but that meeting had not happened before Tuesday night’s council meeting because Sutton was out of town last week.
“As far as animal control is concerned, the city was unable to have some of those conversations that are necessary for us to move forward with a well-informed decision regarding how we’re going to approach animal control in the city of Demorest,” Austin told AccessWDUN Tuesday night.
“As I stated last week, it’s incumbent upon us to have that conversation with the county, and I think in the future just to allow the county to understand that as the county’s building those budgets to please include the cities in that as well, because not only are they building a budget but that also impacts our budget,” Austin said. “For instance, a 97-percent increase beginning in July hits six months of my budget, and that’s an increase that was not allocated when we built a very conservative budget and approved that back at the end of last year that covers the entirety of this year.”
Austin said some amount of contingency is built into the city’s budget, but that is reserved for true emergencies.
“There’s some room for us to massage as we go through, but when you build as fiscally conservative a budget as we’ve built, these types of increases that were unanticipated hit us, so we need everyone to understand, the county to understand, that ultimately we need to be a part of that conversation if it’s going to affect us and our ultimate bottom line,” Austin said.
Austin said the proposed cost increase is not due to increased call volume or shelter intakes related to Demorest.
“Actually, it looks like we’re going to be less this year than what we were last year,” Austin said. “I think the number of intake animals last year for 2017 was 44, as I recall, and this year we’re at 16 to this point, so we’re more than half way through with the year … if you double that, we’re going to be less than what we were last year, but we’re still looking at a 97-percent increase.”
Figures provided to the council last week show that Habersham County Animal Care and Control responded to 61 calls inside Demorest in 2017, with 44 animal intakes at the county shelter in Clarkesville.
For the first half of 2018, animal control personnel responded to 35 calls for service inside the city and there were 18 animal intakes at the county shelter.
Also last week, Demorest officials discussed the cost of animal control services to Demorest compared to the county's cost to the City of Cornelia.
Austin said Cornelia had roughly five times the number of animal calls as Demorest in 2017, and six times the number of calls as Demorest during the first half of 2018, yet only pays about $36,000 to the county.
“It doesn’t seem equitable,” Demorest City Councilman Bruce Harkness said last week. “We can’t take it! We don’t have that much tax base.”
Demorest officials have discussed discontinuing the city’s animal control ordinance, and simply allowing state law to govern how vicious dogs are handled, but said they want to have dialog with Habersham County before making any decisions.
“That deserves and warrants a conversation,” Austin said. “I’m not casting any stones at the county. They’ve got a tough job to do. I’ve been there. We’ve got a tough job to do as well. I think everyone ultimately is trying to do their best to represent their constituents, and we’re no different.”
Austin said he and Williams could meet with county officials as early as today, Sept. 5, to discuss the issue.