Animal shelter battle could continue

NEW CUMBERLAND – A Hancock County resident and former county commissioner said he is weighing his options now that the West Virginia Supreme Court has ruled on his opposition to taxpayer support for a privately-run animal shelter.

David Cline, of Weirton, said he plans to file a petition for a rehearing with the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which, earlier this month, gave two favorable rulings to the Hancock County Commission.

“I don’t expect it to be granted,” he said.

Cline, a former Hancock County commissioner and Weirton councilman, has spent several years challenging the county’s authority to levy a tax in support of the Hancock County Animal Shelter, a private, non-profit organization. Cline believes operating an animal shelter goes beyond the county’s statutory obligations regarding stray cats and dogs, the justices said in their memorandum decision.

The shelter is operated by the Hancock County Animal Shelter Foundation through an annual contract with the Hancock County Commission, which leases the building on Gas Valley Road to the foundation. The shelter is funded through private donations, support from the county commission, and revenue generated by a tax levy.

Hancock County voters last approved the four-year levy in the May 2012 primary election. The tax, which generates an estimated $100,000 toward the shelter’s annual budget, is collected at a rate of 68 cents per $100 of the assessed value of real estate and $1.36 per $100 of the assessed value of personal property, such as cars and boats, according to the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office.

In his latest legal challenge, filed in Hancock County Circuit Court in July 2012, Cline asked the court for a special writ declaring the excess levy rate null and void. Cline filed the lawsuit against the county commissioners on behalf of himself and 43 other taxpayers.

In October 2012, Circuit Court Judge David J. Sims denied Cline’s petition, saying, “Disputes and concerns with the operation and administration of the Hancock County Animal Shelter should be addressed with the Hancock County commissioners and not this court.”

Cline appealed Sims’ ruling to the Supreme Court, which, earlier this month, ruled in favor of the commission on two procedural issues raised by Cline. The justices said Cline, who, though not a lawyer, is representing himself, waived two salient issues when he did not object during court hearings on his petition.

The justices noted that during a status hearing on Oct. 26, 2012, Cline, in response to Sims’ query about the fairness of a procedure, said, “You’re the judge.”

Cline said he decided to appeal because he felt the issue of taxpayer support for the animal shelter never got a fair hearing.

“No one has ever ruled on the issue. It’s a difficult question,” he said. “I just want someone to say, ‘Yes, they can, and here’s the code that says they can.’ “

Cline said he’s not against the animal shelter.

“I’m pro-taxpayer,” he said.

In his brief on behalf of commissioners, County Attorney William Fahey said, “(Cline) has not presented facts, statutes and case law in a cohesive fashion. Rather, he weaves a story of his own contentions, which is not a basis for a Circuit Court to act.”

Fahey told commissioners last week that they may want to follow the advice of the court and meet with Cline to “see if his concerns can be addressed.”

County Commissioner Dan Greathouse would not rule out such a meeting.

“There’s an incessant amount of lawsuits by Mr. Cline, which every citizen has a right to do. It takes an inordinate amount of time, and he’s getting nowhere. How can we settle this once and for all?” Greathouse said.

Asked about his own willingness to meet with commissioners, Cline said, “I think there’s lots of room for discussion.”