Florida Keys News
Sunday, January 27, 2013
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City takes first step to help pet shelter expand

The Florida Keys SPCA crossed a threshold this week when city commissioners, without comment, approved a resolution in full support of the nonprofit animal shelter's plan to build a new 15,000-square foot complex that could withstand flooding.

But the plot of city-owned land the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would love to have is still up for grabs, as Key West grapples with the creation of a new, 24-hour homeless shelter.

Since 2005, the FKSPCA nonprofit has been fundraising and planning for the expansion that would start at its existing address, 5230 College Road, and grow to almost double in size on the next-door city-owned property.

For now, the wait continues, with the SPCA working on about 5,300 square feet of cobbled-together housing, including an old trailer meant to haul things behind a car.

Roofs leak, rats infest and space has been stretched to the maximum.

"It's infested with rats that we can't control because of the condition of the building," said Jane Dawkins, SPCA board chairwoman. "It's unhealthy for our staff. Our community deserves better."

Dawkins believes the poor condition of the SPCA complex deserves the city's urgent attention.

But with a civil lawsuit still pending over Key West by a condo association that wants the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (KOTS) for the homeless shut down immediately, the mayor isn't the only official who wants to tackle the 24-hour center plan first.

"We need more land," said Dawkins, whose board wants a piece of the nearby parcel that housed the former Easter Seals.

But that's where the city wants to build a first for the Keys: A 24-hour comprehensive shelter that would replace KOTS, which is across the road on the Sheriff's Office lot.

So the city approved an SPCA-friendly resolution directing the city manager "to expeditiously evaluate the use of city properties on Stock Island and work with the Florida Keys SPCA to aid in the reconstruction of the animal shelter."

Dawkins and SPCA supporters would prefer if the city helped them first.

"There is still plenty of land for KOTS," Dawkins said.

With about $750,000 in its building fund, the SPCA has donors ready and willing to invest in an expanded animal shelter once they know exactly what it will look like, said Executive Director Tammy Fox.

The SPCA will have to wait for the city to draw up, review and approve the land expansion, which may not be as much as the nonprofit wants.

"It would give us about an acre," said Fox, whose agency also handles animal control from Mile Marker 0 to 16.7.

While grateful to the city and the county for its backing, the SPCA's volunteers and leaders can't mince words about the need, given the rusty cages, the flood-prone buildings and the cramped quarters it has made do with for years.

"We need this to happen fast," said Fox.

"We are four months from hurricane season; that means that we are going into another hurricane season with an unsafe facility."

When Tropical Storm Isaac approached in late August, the shelter staff had to remove all 178 pets, placing them in temporary homes around the Lower Keys until all was clear.

"Yeah, we had water," Fox said of the storm.

The Keys SPCA isn't merely an adoption service for previously abandoned or abused dogs and cats -- the city leases the land to the county in exchange for free animal control.

Eighty percent of the SPCA's animal control work is done in Key West proper, said Fox.

When the economy hit the skids years back, the SPCA created a pet food pantry to help struggling households.

The SPCA also offers low-cost spay and neuter services and foster care for pets whose owners are forced to go into domestic abuse shelters or other temporary living disruptions.

Symbolic in scope, the city's pledge of support hasn't come with any specific decisions, though.

"As soon as we can design the size of the shelter for what we need, then we will say, we can give that to the SPCA," said Mayor Craig Cates.

"Then they can design their animal shelter. Until we decide exactly what size shelter we want there, we can't say how much."

The proposed center for homeless men and women is an ambitious project proposed by Cates, who touts it as the only realistic solution to the island's divisive homeless issue.

But Cates' vision of a homeless shelter where men and women can sleep, eat and receive services meant to put most of them into their own homes and off the streets, beaches and mangroves, remains in the planning stages as well.

No price tag has been affixed by city staff, let alone a timeline. Cates said it's important not to rush, and to do the job right.

The homeless shelter project also has the city debating whether to renew the lease with the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, whose headquarters sits adjacent to the former Easter Seals property on College Road.

Mosquito Control is already searching out alternative locations in the Lower Keys in case they lose their spot.

The SPCA wants to grow where it's at, and is willing to settle in for a substantial wait.

"It's literally falling down," said Niels Hubbell, a board member who is overseeing facilities.

"It's in terrible shape, and the county has been helping. The facility is outdated, the roofs are leaking."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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