Citrus County takes ‘huge’ step toward new animal shelter

shelter sign
'These animals are a part of our lives.'

Citrus County residents have heard plenty about a new animal shelter. Now they’ll know where it’s headed.

Citrus County officials gathered for a ceremony at a Lecanto intersection where plans call for an animal shelter that proponents say is well beyond its need.

“This seems like such a small thing but it’s huge to all of us,” said County Commission Chairman Ruthie Davis Schlabach, who has led the animal shelter effort.

The shelter has sat in its current cramped space near the Inverness Airport for decades. Commissioners long debated whether to renovate or relocate. In 2021, the board voted 3-2 for a new site on county-owned property in Lecanto on the corner of County Road 491 and Woodland Ridge Drive, down the street from the Citrus County Detention Facility. 

Commissioners had a location but no plan to pay for it. Gerry Mulligan, then publisher of the Citrus County Chronicle, started a shelter fundraising drive that so far has netted more than $2 million, Schlabach said, with more fundraising yet to come. Friends of the Citrus County Animal Services have raised another $250,000.

The private funds will be used for add-ons, though the details of exactly how that looks have not been determined. That was the reason Commissioner Diana Finegan gave in April for voting “no” on moving forward to design.

Rep. Ralph Massullo of House District 23 and his wife, Patricia, are the largest donors, pledging $500,000. Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, is preparing for his final Session after reaching term limits.

Massullo acknowledged what shelter workers and volunteers have long said about the current facility: too many animals, too little space or humans to properly care for them.

“We recognized our current shelter was coming to the end of its useful life,” he said. “We’re spending money on public safety. These animals are a part of our lives.”

Commissioners have so far hinged project costs on the sale of a 350-acre county-owned parcel in Crystal River known as Betz Farm. The property is appraised at $6.1 million; however, it’s been on the market for more than a year without an offer making it to closing.

County Administrator Steve Howard said he decided to separate Betz Farm from the animal shelter to move the Lecanto project along, on the belief he’ll find the money elsewhere.

The county is expected to view animal shelter design plans in December and release bids soon after. Howard said the County Commission has a construction ceiling of $9 million, plus up to $3.5 million from private donations for add-ons.

“There are lots of options,” Howard said. “Until we see the bids, there’s no reason to earmark money at this point.”

Mike Wright

Mike Wright is a former reporter with the Citrus County Chronicle, where he had covered county government and politics since 1987. Mike's skills as an investigative reporter earned him first-place awards in investigative writing. Mike also helped the Chronicle win the Frances Devore Award for Public Service in 2002.


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