So. Many. Cats. Council learns why local shelter is overflowing with felines. Mayor also plans housing forum and council shifts end-of-year funds at meeting

By Randi B. Hagi, senior contributor 

The council learned Tuesday that at least one population in the city saw a steep increase recently. 

Huck Nawaz, the director of the Rockingham Harrisonburg SPCA animal shelter, provided the Harrisonburg City Council with an update on the shelter after his first six months with the organization. 

From January to May of this year, compared to the same five months of last year, Nawaz said the SPCA saw a 30 percent increase in total animal intakes, which Nawaz said was in part due to a “gross overpopulation” of cats.

The organization also reported in that span:

  • A 35 percent increase in adoptions.
  • A 30 percent increase in “returns to owner,” meaning that lost animals that were brought to the shelter were reunited with the owners looking for them. “There’s been a concerted effort to get those animals home, first and foremost,” Nawaz said.
  • A 115 percent increase in transfers, primarily cats being transferred to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA.
  • A 12 percent decrease in euthanizations.

Nawaz said “intakes are significantly higher from the county … particularly cat intakes,” although he noted that plenty of cats come from within city limits as well. That includes when residents call to request the SPCA come and trap feral cats. 

Nawaz said cats who have lived their whole lives outside do not adjust well to shelter kennels.

In response to the influx of cats — also thanks to “kitten season” — the shelter is offering all cats and kittens for a reduced $25 adoption fee through June. The shelter might extend the promotion, if necessary, to find homes for more felines, Nawaz said.

City Manager Eric Campbell said that in a recent meeting with “animal stakeholders … they were pleased with the direction that we are going.” 

“It’s a work in progress,” Nawaz said.

Projects get remaining funds

A few city projects will benefit from end-of-the-fiscal-year savings now that the Harrisonburg city council approved shifting more than $1 million on Tuesday. The savings come from various line items in the city’s general fund, according to a memorandum from the city’s director of finance, Larry Propst. 

The funds will be redistributed as follows:

  • $640,000 to fund the MLK, Jr. Way bridge project, plus “ $166,393 from the MLK, Jr. Way improvement hotel/conference center project,” according to the memorandum.
  • $400,000 to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning upgrades at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.
  • $95,000 to cover costs of improvements to the Westover park swimming pool.
  • $10,000 to renovations to Fire Station No. 4 on East Rock Street.

Council member Richard Baugh was absent for the meeting. And while the council approved the reallocation unanimously, council member Chris Jones said the additional community contributions he had hoped to include in the 2019-20 budget would have only cost half the amount of this reallocation. Jones had said in May during debate over the city’s budget that he wished community programs, including the Blue Ridge Court Appointed Special Advocate for Children and a 4H chapter, had received more funding. 

Campbell, the city manager, responded Tuesday by saying the reallocation “closes out those projects,” in contrast to the recurring nature of community contributions.

Affordable housing forum 

Mayor Deanna Reed told The Citizen after the meeting that she is planning a community forum on affordable housing for August. She said the details yet to be determined.

Such a forum would keep the spotlight on an issue Reed has said is priority to her — and one the council members identified as a priority in their retreat in February. 

“It’s still part of our plan as a council to tackle,” Reed said.

Affordable housing has been particularly scarce this year because of a confluence of factors, such as high demand, slower construction and zoning and other regulations, as a series in The Citizen showed earlier this spring. 

The council has taken steps in recent meetings that council members said were aimed at addressing the housing crunch, such as creating a new zoning class for houses on small plots of land and giving the green light to a new mixed-use development off Port Republic Road. 

Also at the meeting:

  • The council voted unanimously to reappoint Judy Bland and Abdelrahman Rabie to the Community Services Board, and appoint John Butler Jr. to the Blue Ridge Community College Board of Trustees.
  • Reed announced that fireworks will begin around 9:15 p.m. during the Friendly City Fourth celebration on July fourth, and city hall will be closed on the fourth and fifth. Council member George Hirschmann encouraged residents to “have as much fun as you can, but be careful,” in the heat.
  • Vice-mayor Sal Romero said he had “been approached” by multiple community members who wanted the public comment section returned to the beginning of the agenda. “I would be willing to support that,” Romero said.

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