Right after the Guilford County commissioners heard that the proposed new Animal Shelter – which in the past was expected to cost about $9 million – was now projected to cost $18 million, for a moment, the cat had their tongues and, then, when they finally did say something, it was clear they thought the plan as presented was for the dogs.

“I started gasping for air,” said Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson. “I was wondering if the batteries in my hearing aid were working.”

The chairman doesn’t actually wear a hearing aid, but he had in fact heard the unforeseen, sky-high price correctly at the Board of Commissioners Thursday, June 14 work session in the Blue Room of the Old Guilford County Court House.

Other commissioners shared Branson’s reaction. Commissioner Hank Henning said the numbers were “scaring him” and said that obviously staff and consultants would need to “go back to the drawing board a little bit.”

This week, Branson called the proposed facility the “Taj Mah-Dog,” and he said that, while county officials all want to have the best shelter possible, Guilford County has a lot of critical needs and limited funds. The chairman said the county not only has to take care of its animals but also its people. In the end, the commissioners gave guidance to staff and consultants to come back with a new version of the plan that doesn’t exceed $12.5 million.

“Hopefully, they got the message that this needs to be tweaked,” Branson said.

PNP Design Group has been working with new Guilford County Animal Services Director Jorge Ortega and with county facilities staff on the project. The price of a shelter proposed at the June 14 work session was twice the $8 million to $9 million figure the commissioners had discussed in late 2016 and early 2017 when the board began moving forward on a new shelter to replace the aging one at 4525 W. Wendover Ave. in Greensboro.

About six years ago, when the commissioners began preliminary discussions on the possibility of building a new Animal Shelter, the ballpark figure that was thrown around for the cost of the project was $6 million. Then, in early 2017, that had risen to $9 million. Last November, the board heard estimates of three possible shelter options that ranged from $9 million to $15 million. The $15 million option was for a top of the line 42,000-square-foot animal shelter – one that would be everything anyone wanted. However, the commissioners were taken aback at that time by the $15 million price tag, which was already about $6 million over the amount the board had been planning to spend.

So, at the June 14 meeting, when the commissioners saw a rendering of the latest proposal for an $18 million, 44,000-square-foot state of the art shelter with all the bells and whistles, they had sticker shock to say the least. And when Commissioner Kay Cashion wanted to know if the project as designed could cost more than the projected $18 million, Talmage Payne, the lead consultant on the project for PNP, said it was possible the price could be higher.

“The real world number comes from when we actually get the bid,” said Payne, who acknowledged that construction costs are as expensive as ever right now given tariffs and other upward economic pressures.

The board also saw a modified, smaller version of the shelter that was estimated to cost $16.5 million but the commissioners clearly also thought that price was too high. In something of an awkward moment at the meeting, Payne and Ortega wanted to go into the details of the proposed facility but the commissioners told them that, since it was a long work session with a lot to cover, the board didn’t need to hear rest of the presentation.

The board is eager to get started building a replacement for the current shelter, which by all accounts is not well designed for modern shelter use and practices and has floor cracks, leaks and other problems that made it difficult to maintain at levels acceptable to state inspectors. At the June 14 work session, Ortega told the board there “isn’t enough duct tape in the world” to bring the current shelter to the condition it needs to be.

There’s no question the proposed $18 million facility would be extremely nice if Guilford County had the money to build it. The facility as designed has all the options including plenty of space for isolating animals that are sick or dangerous, a large area for medical services and space for public classes and special events. It even has a patio with cats on display that would allow prospective owners to interact with the animals in a pleasant, relaxed environment.

“The big idea for us on this was to bring a very inviting facility with an inviting retail atmosphere where you go and buy your brand new puppy or cat,” Payne told the board, adding that it would be a place where citizens would be excited to visit.

“It would reduce disease and keep animals happy and healthy,” she said.

At the same five-hour work session, the commissioners heard about many of the other county funding needs for fiscal 2018-2019 and beyond, including items such as funding for new school security measures, a new Emergency Services vehicle maintenance facility and major renovations to the old jail in downtown Greensboro.

The board was having that discussion without former Guilford County Facilities, Parks and Property Management Director Robert McNiece, who had been overseeing the shelter project and who resigned suddenly last month. McNiece would have been front and center for the entire discussion if he hadn’t resigned. Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing has assumed many of McNiece’s responsibilities, but, at the work session, McNiece’s absence was certainly one elephant in the room.

Last year, Guilford County purchased property for the new shelter at 979 Guilford College Road for about $500,000, which is just southwest of Greensboro and is less than two miles from the existing county shelter. The board is anxious to build the new shelter and get it open by 2019, but the June 14 meeting was clearly a setback in that effort.

Commissioner Jeff Phillips, who’s a financial advisor by trade and is the board’s point man for financial matters, said after the meeting that this type of upward cost creep is something that is becoming too common with Guilford County projects and the board is attempting to address it.

“That creep seems to have been happening for a while and I think we sort of called that question out here to get some clarity and to put the brakes on it,” Phillips said. “We let our staff know that there’s a stopping point to which we were not willing to go beyond. A little give or take is one thing but, when you get into the millions, that’s very uncomfortable.”

“It’s a healthy conversation,” Phillips added. “We look at the Taj Mah-whatever and then at what we need.”

Several commissioners said at the meeting that it’s understandable that staff and designers want the new shelter to be absolutely everything it can be, but they added that financial reality dictates what’s affordable. Commissioner Alan Perdue, who was a longtime director of Guilford County Emergency Services before retiring and being elected commissioner, said at the work session that, when his department needed a building, the reasonable process was to see how much money was available and then find the best option given that price restraint. He said that’s also the process to use when a family is buying or building a home.

When the county commissioners shut down the presentation at the meeting, they instructed staff to come back with cost-saving options for the new shelter.

Ortega said the plans could be scaled back but it may mean the county has to pay more for services. For instance, he said, if there isn’t adequate space for onsite veterinary care, the county will have to continue to outsource many of those services as it does now.

Aside from the shelter construction, the $18 million price tag also includes a lot of site work on the 12-acre parcel just north of the intersection of Guilford College Road and Hickory Grove Road. The site is vacant but is full of trees, shrubs and hills.

The location is convenient to High Point – something that was a big concern in the planning process – but the added cost of getting water and other utilities to the facility is also contributing to the high cost now being discussed.