Man’s Fight Against Shelter Levy Continues

NEW MANCHESTER – For two years, David Cline has fought a losing battle to overturn a levy that funds the Hancock County Animal Shelter, maintaining it amounts to taxpayer support of a private humane society.

Cline, a Weirton resident, steelworker and former Hancock County commissioner, has devoted a great deal of time to this issue, and, without benefit of legal representation, twice has sued the county commission to have the levy overturned. Both of Cline’s lawsuits were dismissed in Hancock County Circuit Court, and he appealed both rulings to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

Justices ruled in the county’s favor on the first appeal in a decision handed down earlier this month, while the second case remains pending before justices.

State law requires counties to deal with stray animals as a matter of public health. But Cline believes taxpayer-supported activity at the “low-kill” Hancock County Animal Shelter goes beyond those statutory obligations.

County commissioners contract with the private, non-profit Hancock County Animal Shelter Foundation to operate the county-owned facility on Gas Valley Road outside New Manchester. In addition to providing a place for the county to deal with animals seized by its dog warden, the shelter also accepts animals that residents voluntarily surrender, and in most cases cares for them until they are adopted.

The shelter “turns no animal in need away,” its website states. Court documents quote an August 2010 letter from a shelter official to county commissioners, describing the foundation’s mission as “to care for all healthy and adoptable animals until they find their forever homes.”

“I think that is an admirable and a wonderful thing they’re doing,” Cline said, adding, “That doesn’t mean it’s the taxpayers’ responsibility.”

Cline is frustrated that none of the rulings handed down thus far directly addresses the central question of his lawsuits – whether he, as a taxpayer, can be obligated to provide care “to an unlimited amount of animals for an unlimited amount of time.” He’s hoping justices will grant his remaining appeal before the high court and send the matter back to Hancock County Circuit Court for a hearing on that issue.

Hancock County taxpayers will contribute about $275,000 to the animal shelter this year – $175,000 through the general fund to pay for the county’s contract to operate the shelter, and $100,000 through a property tax levy.

Cline doesn’t dispute the county’s authority to contract with a private foundation to operate the shelter, but his lawsuit alleges county commissioners have no authority under state law to put an excess levy to support that foundation on the ballot.

Cline also takes issue with the automatic renewal of the county’s contract with the foundation each year without a competitive bidding process – and questions why the county can’t fund the planned expansion and improvements at the shelter without the benefit of an excess levy, when it had almost $6 million in its capital improvement fund, $3.4 million in its “special projects” fund and almost $3.2 million in a “rainy day” fund as of March 31.

Commission President Jeff Davis said he had yet to read the Supreme Court’s ruling and would not comment on it.

He also declined to comment on Cline’s continuing objections to the county’s relationship with the shelter. Commissioner Dan Greathouse also said he hadn’t seen the high court’s ruling. But he believes the public has made its wishes known concerning the shelter.

“The voters of Hancock County continue to vote the levy in. I think the voters have spoken, and that’s plain and clear. … They agree with the direction that the animal shelter is going,” Greathouse said.

Following is a timeline of events related to Cline’s legal challenge of the animal shelter levy:

July 26, 2011 – Cline files his initial lawsuit in Hancock County Circuit Court, about a month after commissioners called for a special election on the levy to provide $100,000 in annual funding for three years ending June 30, 2015.

Sept. 23, 2011 – Following a hearing, now-retired Circuit Judge Arthur Recht decides he will wait until after the election to rule on the lawsuit, pointing out the issue would be moot if the levy fails.

Oct. 4, 2011 – The animal shelter levy indeed fails, falling less than 1 percent short of the 60-percent margin required for passage.

January 2012 – County officials move successfully to have Cline’s lawsuit dismissed as moot.

March 1, 2012 – County commissioners order an almost identical levy placed on the May 8, 2012, primary election ballot. This levy call is for four years.

May 8, 2012 – Hancock County voters approve the second levy, with about 65 percent in favor.

June 4, 2012 – Recht enters his final order dismissing Cline’s 2011 lawsuit as moot. Cline petitions to have his case reopened in light of the county’s successful attempt to pass an animal shelter levy.

June 19, 2012 – Recht denies Cline’s petition, ruling the matter is political, not judicial. Cline appeals this ruling to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

July 9, 2012 – Cline tries a different tactic, obtaining signatures from 43 other Hancock County taxpayers and filing for a “writ of supersedeas” to rescind the levy, which the court may consider under state law upon the petition of at least 24 taxpayers.

Oct. 26 – During a status hearing before Circuit Judge David Sims, county officials question whether Cline, who is not a licensed attorney, can speak on behalf of his fellow petitioners.

Oct. 31 – Sims dismisses the second suit, writing, “Disputes and concerns with the operation and administration of the (animal shelter) should be addressed with the Hancock County Commission and not this court.” Cline also appeals this ruling to the state Supreme Court, asking justices to send the matter back to circuit court for a ruling on the validity of the levy’s purpose.

July 8 – The Supreme Court rules in favor of county officials in Cline’s original lawsuit, agreeing the failure of the levy on Oct. 4, 2011, rendered the issue moot, based on the timing of the lawsuit and the fact the second levy call was for four years while the first was for three.