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Judge-executive, Humane Society bury the hatchet

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By BEN CARLSON

A cease-fire agreement was apparently reached between Judge-Executive Steve Cornish and the Anderson Humane Society when the two sides met last week.

During the meeting, Cornish said he handed over a $7,700 check to pay off a nearly two-year-old debt the county owed the Humane Society, and explained why he said "absolutely no" when voting against paying that amount earlier this month.

"I explained that I was not against paying back the money, and if came across that way, I apologize," Cornish said after the meeting. "What I was against was paying it all back at once."

The two sides have been at odds for months. Humane Society officials became angry earlier this year when the fiscal court voted to increase fees at the county-run animal shelter, claiming that research shows that higher fees lead to less animals being turned in for adoption.

When Humane Society Director Donna Callahan attempted to voice her concerns during a fiscal court meeting, Cornish commented that she should worry about running the Humane Society and that the fiscal court would run the county.

That led indirectly to the Humane Society pushing to be repaid for money it spent making improvements to the county-owned building it uses as an adoption center, a deal made before Cornish took office in late 2006.

At that time, an apparent handshake deal was reached by then-Judge Anthony Stratton and Callahan, but the debt was not paid before Stratton left office.

The issue resurfaced after Cornish took office, and lead to a 6-1 vote by the fiscal court to pay the debt. The debt was not paid during that budget year, either, and only half was budgeted to be paid during the current fiscal year, with the balance due the next.

That plan didn't suit Humane Society officials, who retained Lawrenceburg attorney David Nutgrass, who wrote a letter requesting payment in full on the agency's behalf.

That letter and the ongoing saga sparked concern among magistrates, who vowed that the bill would be paid and delivered on that promise during a fiscal court meeting earlier this month. During that meeting, Cornish voiced his concerns about the lack of insurance for volunteers at the shelter and questioned why the private entity is given free rent and utilities in a county-owned building.

Nutgrass attended last week's meeting and said he thinks both sides can now work together.

"I think that the Humane Society's relationship with the county is better when we walked out than when we walked in," said Nutgrass, adding that it was Cornish who requested the meeting. "The Humane Society was frankly a little apprehensive about the meeting. All we wanted to do was get the money, but we're happy with the way it turned out."

Cornish said he, too, hopes the issues between them are now settled.

"That's what I'm hoping for," he said. "I am not anti-Humane Society. I have a dog and a cat that rule the house, and another cat that rules my garage. I'm not going to stand for strays being abused or mistreated, and we are probably spending more money [at the animal shelter] than previous administrations."

As for charging rent, Cornish said, "Am I pushing for something like that right now? No. That just came out in the discussion at that time. From my side of the desk, we pay the utilities and maintenance of the county-owned building and county employees clean the large animal pens. It's not like the county's not doing anything for the Humane Society, but if everyone can pitch in and get along, they have a good program and good people running it. That's never been in question."

Nutgrass said both sides have the same goal in terms of caring for animals, and that rent was not discussed during the meeting.

"They haven't always played well together in the past," he said. "This was an effort to get us to do that."