From the Desk of

J. Michael Cross County Executive

 

These past few weeks have garnered a lot of talk about issues surrounding Best Friends Sanctuary and Fentress County, and a lot of misunderstanding of Fentress County’s role in management of their operations etc. I wanted to take a minute to clear up any misconceptions that the public may have about what Fentress County can and cannot do as it relates to Best Friends.

            As I understand it, Best Friends is an independent corporation and it operates as a 501C3 non-profit organization and is funded primarily by donations and as such should be run by volunteers, and one source of funding, other than the generous donations from those who love animals and want to use their own extra monies in support of Best Friends, had been a recurring $2,500.00 yearly donation from Fentress County Commission, much like the donations that the County provides for other non-profits agencies doing good work in the county, such as the Food Bank, etc.

Since June 2012, the County has a long- term lease with Best Friends for the real property at 346 Volunteer Drive, Jamestown, Tennessee which is in the Industrial Park here in Jamestown. The Lease was specifically for the land only, as there were no buildings, or other structures on the property and Best Friends was able to secure funding through grants, etc to build a building on the land, as was their goal when they were given the lease. The Lease is for a period of 30 years and will renew automatically at the end of each 30 year term. The County receives no property taxes on the property as this is a charitable organization.

Essentially, the county remains the registered owner of the property as the County did not sell or transfer the land to Best Friends and the County could not sell or give the property outright, because Tennessee state law requires that ANY transfer of county owned real property must be by a public auction and sold to the highest bidder. There are no exceptions even for charitable organizations (historical and educational ones are potential exceptions), but no exceptions for animal shelters or rescues. This is a Tennessee State law, and not a county one.

In addition, the lease, signed over 5 years ago, did not allow the county to have “policing” powers, other than to make sure that there was an actual animal shelter in place at the facility. In essence, we did not retain any of the typical rights a landlord would have to regulate the nature of the activities and upkeep at the property. It is my understanding that the City of Jamestown has had an agreement regarding the payment of the utilities on the property with Best Friends and they always done so. However, I cannot speak to the state of the agreement with the City as of today.

The appraised value of the property in 2012, prior to the lease, was approximately $34,000.00. However, as the property was deemed commercial at that time, and with the 2013 reappraisal, the property designation was changed from commercial (as it was no longer available for industry use even though it remained in the industrial park) and the value was decreased to about $23,640.00. The County essentially donated the value of $34,000.00 of land to Best Friends in 2012 and gave up the potential for use of this property as industrial and gave up future tax revenue from the property, all in a good faith effort to assist Best Friends. We have continued to uphold our lease agreement with Best Friends and have made no efforts to remove them from the property or “throw them out” as rumor has circulated that we had done.

However, On July 11, 2017, we were notified by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Water Resources, that the property was in violation of T.C.A. 68-221-401- 418 et seq, regarding the inadequate sewage disposal system in place at the Best Friends’ facility,- NOTHING that the county had any control over nor was it related to our lease- and these violations had the possibility of damaging the health and welfare of the public and that Best Friends would need take corrective action steps to come into compliance.

Although the county was not involved in the actions that led to the violation, the County received the violation as the County is the registered owner. The County then forwarded the Notice of Violation to Best Friends and put them in direct contact with TDEC for further corrective action planning. We were simply the middle man in the process of notifications.

We have received confirmation from TDEC on Friday, September 15, 2017 that Best Friends took the corrective action steps that were required by TDEC, including that no washing of anything, dogs and/or items could take place outside, and all dogs must be kept indoors to prevent any kennel waste from becoming improperly disposed. Therefore, TDEC considered the violation to be corrected and terminated their investigation. TDEC did indicate that there would be no fines forthcoming regarding this first investigation, as Best Friends and the County were very quickly responsive and cooperative. However, TDEC did indicate that if the same actions take place in the future from Best Friends that fines and other penalties will occur.

This has been the interactions thus far with the County and Best Friends, our lease continues as it always has since 2012, and as long as TDEC is satisfied with the outcome, the County has no issues to weigh in on the operations at Best Friends. It is my understanding that the Commission chose not to include additional charitable donation funding in the 2017-2018 budget, for a variety of reasons, but not the least of which is that the Commission had never been provided (despite yearly requests for the information in the prior 3 years) the organizations’ budget nor had they received any proof of where the tax dollars that they donated were being utilized, unlike with other donations, where the requesting agency provides a budget and/or breakdown of services provided with tax payer funds, which allows the County to provide a rationale to the public and to our auditors, as to where these funds are actually being used and that they are used properly. I remain optimistic that Best Friends will be able to provide that information in the future, if they plan to make additional requests for funding in future budget years.

Other rumors have circulated that the County has refused to fund the amount necessary for monthly operations at Best Friends to force them to close altogether and still others are that the County is going to take over the facility and run it as a dog pound. Let me put to rest both of those as incorrect assumptions, the first of which is their request for additional funding required to operate the facility each month. Essentially, if Fentress County were to provide the $5000.00 per month funding for operating expenses that has been purported to be the approximate operating costs each month, (and as I understand it- these are over and above the utilities and any City paid expenses), the County would have to budget an additional $60,000.00 per year for the Best Friends donation.

 As I understand it, that type of funding structure could impact their designation as a 501C3, in that they would be functioning almost as another government agency, in that all but a substantial portion of expenses would be from the County, and the land their facility sits on would be owned by Fentress County, which could very well trigger additional scrutiny from the IRS or other agencies as well as the State of Tennessee auditors. While we have the power by statute to open a county-run animal control unit, we as a county are not required to do so. Fentress County Sheriff has indicated that the policy of Fentress County is to respond to calls regarding loose dogs or other animals, and to enforce the law if the owner can be identified, including fines and jail time if necessary. In addition, there are civil actions in places for dog bite cases, losses from dogs running loose and property damages, etc. Those legal provisions do not change with or without funding for the charitable organization.

Further, to put into perspective, the entire budget of the Veteran’s Service office, the Emergency Management (EMA) budget and the EMS fuel bills are all about $60,000.00 each per year. The county must make decisions about where your tax dollars are spent and about priorities for all tax payers, including those who love to care for old people, children, veterans and emergency services as well as decide where dogs and other animals may fit into our budget, but always within the confines of what the citizens’ tax dollars will ultimately allow. I encourage everyone who has a special love for animals, dogs or other animals, to support these agencies who care for animals in ways that already strained county budgets don’t allow. Use your spare monies and your spare time to support the charity of your choice, because organizations like Best Friends are non-profit, and they depend on the public because they cannot be expected to be fully funded nor operated by the government and your tax dollars.

There has been other rumors that the County is making Best Friends move to a different location and as such, the County has never made efforts to relocate Best Friends nor have we discussed any lease changes. We have been proposed to by Best Friends to help find more suitable location for the animals and their needs and we have made suggestions based on the remaining property that the County owns. We have very little other County owned property, but we are happy to help with any recommendations for property transfers, so long as the Tennessee law allows. In addition, in a good faith effort to show our support for their cause, we have proposed a joint work session with the City of Jamestown and Best Friends and have invited the Industrial Development Board and the School Board, as both own some potential property that may be advantageous for the Best Friends’ needs.

We believe in open government, and in working together with other agencies and municipalities, such as our City, who has become a fantastic partner to work with to find solutions to common issues. We also believe that this is one of the most generous communities to live in and that the citizens will find a way to support causes near and dear to their hearts, such as Best Friends and in doing so, will allow the government to keep operating as efficiently as we have in the past 3 years, with balanced budgets and no new taxes and providing all the required services that we can provide to keep Fentress County great.