The city of Helena-West Helena’s long-dysfunctional and underfunded animal control department has left the city dependent on the efforts of an animal control officer with no place to house animals, a handful of volunteers and the generosity of strangers to stay on top of its chronic stray dog problem.
Although the city arranged under the previous mayor for an animal shelter that was delivered on Dec. 20 of last year, the building materials were repossessed by the manufacturer last month, and now a major donor who put up a $50,000 matching grant to help defray the cost of the $116,000 modular kennel wants her money back.
Cathy Bissell, founder of the Bissell Pet Foundation, a national animal welfare organization, donated $50,000 to the city under an agreement with the previous mayor, Kevin Smith, to provide an animal shelter for the city’s animal control department’s use. But after Smith’s successor, Christopher Franklin, took office in January, Bissell said she heard no more about the shelter until receiving word that it had been repossessed after sitting unused for eight months.
Bissell said her assistance to the city was welcomed prior to the current administration headed by Franklin but said since he took over in January she has had almost no contact with city officials.
“I never talked to the mayor once,” she said. “The money was already in their hands because the money came before Kevin [Smith, the former mayor] was out of office. … They had the money and no one ever called me and I was just waiting and waiting and waiting for someone to tell me that this facility was up and running.”
Bissell said she talked to someone with the city who assured her everything was on track.
“I think it was the mayor’s assistant I talked to and she told me, ‘Well, it’s coming, we’re getting there,’ and it never happened,” she said. “The next call I got from someone there was that it was taken back, repossessed.”
At that point, Bissell said, she called Franklin to find out what was going on and said he appeared to be unaware the kennel had been picked up.
“He said, ‘How do you know that?’ and I told him, ‘People in town have called me and I’m going to need my money back,'” Bissell said. “‘You need to pay me back the $50,000 that I gave you because this was a grant to the city and it needed to be used for that.'”
Franklin did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
Bissell said she had worked closely with Smith during the four years he was in the mayor’s office but said that relationship with the city has cooled considerably with the change in administration.
“The old mayor worked really hard to help make a difference and get the word out, talk about things and help us set up spay/neuter clinics,” she said. “We don’t get any assistance now.”
Leslie Galloway, a local activist and founder of a nonprofit animal rescue organization, Meals on Wheels for Helena-West Helena Dogs, has been involved in animal rescue for 13 years and has been providing help to the city. Recently, though, she said her shelter is strained to capacity and she can no longer afford to offer her services to the city for nothing. She said she has been housing dogs for the city’s animal control officer, Beth Florek, because the city has no place for them but said she can’t continue to do so without the city taking on some of the financial responsibility.
Currently, she said, the city’s stray dog problem is being dealt with primarily by herself, Florek, and two other local volunteers, Becky Weaver and Lorraine Ferryman.
Galloway said she has offered to rent the facility to the city to use as a shelter for $1,500 a month, which she said is sufficient to cover the heating and cooling bills and routine upkeep expenses. She said Franklin recently agreed to rent the facility for the month of September but has not committed to a longer-term arrangement.
“He said I need to come up with a contract to present to the City Council and let them decide whether to do it or not,” she said. “He’s going to kind of put it on them but for the month of September he’s paid for the 13 dogs [Florek] has in her custody to be in my barn. It’s just for the month. That could change in October if the City Council doesn’t want to do that.”
Although intended only as a short-term solution, Galloway said with the city having no place to adequately shelter the animals it takes in and her need to have the city help with the cost of the animals she cares for, she had to give Franklin an ultimatum regarding the half-dozen dogs she was boarding for the city free of charge.
“I told him, ‘Christopher, if you don’t write that check, all of your dogs have to leave my facility today,'” she said. “He said, ‘I don’t have a place to put them,’ and I said, ‘Write that check and you’ll have a place.’ That money covers utilities, mowing, the upkeep of the building. My program pays to transport them to other states, to adoption homes, to other rescues. They don’t have to pay for that, my program does.”
Galloway said Meals on Wheels for Helena-West Helena Dogs also pays for heart worm treatments, spaying and neutering services, medicines, surgeries and transport costs.
Galloway said the city has not had an animal control facility of its own since 2008, when a former mayor, James Valley, released 10 dogs from the city’s makeshift animal shelter that was in use at that time into the St. Francis National Forest to fend for themselves. That action gained Valley — now chief of staff to Franklin — notoriety as well as a $300 fine and an order to pay $1,600 in restitution to Northeast Arkansans for Animals, a Jonesboro-based group that helped locate some of the missing dogs.
“It’s been since 2008 when James Valley turned them loose into the woods this city hasn’t had an animal control-run shelter,” she said. “It’s been up to the Humane Society, which was shut down, and me, to deal with for the past 10 years.”
Galloway, who founded her organization in 2010, said she started out by feeding stray dogs around the city but eventually was able to purchase and convert a barn for use as a shelter, which she named Heartland. She said Heartland is equipped with 10 stalls with fenced yards, all with heat and all but two with air conditioning. The dogs she rescues through her nonprofit, she said, are generally sent to out-of-state adoption agencies at a cost of about $500 per dog. Transportation costs, she said, typically run between $5,000 and $10,000 a month.
She said because of the arrangement with Franklin to house 13 of the city’s dogs for the remainder of September, she has moved her rescue operations to her home to avoid overcrowding at her facility.
At the most recent City Council meeting on Sept. 5, Andre Valley, the city attorney and brother of Chief of Staff James Valley, addressed the issue of the repossessed animal kennel, saying that Smith, the former mayor who was replaced by Franklin in January, had purchased the structure without authorization from the City Council. That was contradicted by Council Member Kyle Miller, who said the council had voted on the matter last year when Franklin was on the council.
“Remember, we passed to release that $50,000 when we were on the council,” Miller said to Franklin.
Andre Valley then said he was not aware that money was tied to a match for the kennel but thought it could be matched with other expenses.
“My thinking on Bissell is that the grant, as I understand it from the council meeting, was to match the city in animal control,” Valley said, “not to match the city in a building. In terms of meeting the grant requirements we spent more than $50,000 on animal control this year.
“She may not be inclined to give any more,” he continued, “but we matched it.”
Reached by phone Saturday, Smith said the council did approve the purchase in 2022, although he said he didn’t recall all of the details. He said prior to presenting the matter to the council he traveled to Marianna to see the kennel there, which had been purchased from the same vendor — Horizon Structures of Atglen, Penn. — he arranged the purchase of the Helena-West Helena kennel with.
“It was a motion to match Cathy Bissell’s $50,000,” he said. “I don’t remember the exact meeting but it was before the November election. It was definitely in writing and it was definitely a match to the Bissell Foundation grant. There’s plenty of documentation to that effect.”
Asked by a council member how the city plans to deal with the problem of stray dogs moving forward, Franklin said he has a plan but provided no details.
“We have a plan, that’s for sure,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be a good plan. It’s going to be one of those plans that you’re proud of.”
Galloway said after the Sept. 5 council meeting, she and Florek pressed Franklin for details of the plan.
“We asked him straight to his face what the plan was and he said he could buy a metal shop building for $20,000,” she said. “Beth said, ‘Well, what about the air conditioning? What about the drainage?’ She started naming off all this stuff the building would need. … So, he kind of backed up on that for a second. I don’t think he really had thought it through.”
At that point, Galloway said, she made the offer to rent Heartland to the city, telling Franklin that her facility was already equipped with everything the city would need to house the dogs.
“This is a good first step,” she said. “I don’t know how it will work out but at least he’s trying.”
Regardless of how the City Council decides to move ahead, it will still have to deal with the matter of the $50,000 grant from the Bissell Foundation.
“They have to pay it back because the usage was for that building, which was housing dogs,” Bissell said. “I know they’re short of cash so now that’s kind of a lot of money that’s going to nothing because the building’s gone.”