PASCO -- One sniff of the stale, urine-stained puppy room at Tri-Cities Animal Shelter in Pasco is enough to make visitors step lightly and leave quickly.
Angela Zilar, who manages the shelter that holds about 200 lost and abandoned cats and dogs, said the shelter is past needing replacement.
Part of the shelter was built in the 1950s, and it was operated for years as a Humane Society shelter before Tri-Cities Animal Control Authority took over in 2001.
While Benton County officials recently celebrated opening a state of the art shelter in Kennewick for dogs from rural areas of the county, all unwanted and lost animals picked up in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick are kenneled in a decades-old concrete block building that echoes like a warehouse and smells like a sewer.
Zilar said the 7,000 square-foot facility has been remodeled so many times it has become inefficient and unhealthy.
Benton County's new 32-kennel shelter cost $815,000, but it would take five times that much to replace the Tri-Cities Animal Shelter, according to an assessment completed late last year.
"No one is anxious (for each city) to spend $1.5 million, but it has to be done," said Gary Crutchfield, Pasco city manager.
Cooperation and timing among the three cities is essential, he said. "Without it we can't provide animal control services."
City managers Marie Mosley of Kennewick and Cindy Johnson of Richland agree, but say that revenue shortfalls are forcing governments to prioritize, and a new multimillion-dollar Tri-Cities shelter isn't top on the list.
"Our council knows there's a need," Mosley said, adding that she would have liked seeing Benton County become a partner instead of going it alone.
"Now I don't know what the potential partnerships are," she added.
Johnson said the Richland council has listed the need for a new shelter as one of "many high priorities," but she also would like to see a regional solution involving more than the three cities.
Zilar said Benton and Franklin counties have preferred to let the cities do animal control so they don't have to. But that could change.
The three city managers agree the ideal answer would have been for the counties and cities to create a regional solution to the animal control problem. Benton County now going it alone makes it more difficult.
Franklin County commissioners are asking similar questions as they consider an animal control program. And West Richland officials are considering contracting with Benton County for animal control services, said Larry Taylor, Benton County's animal control manager.
Meanwhile, Zilar said the existing shelter can't last much longer.
Crutchfield said the situation already poses a liability risk because of potential animal health issues.
A 1 minute tour of the shelter's puppy room shows just how far short the level of care falls from that standard.
Concrete floors and cement block kennels have soaked up years' worth of animal feces and urine that no amount of scrubbing and disinfectant can remove, Zilar said.
A single exhaust fan is ineffective in removing the dank air from the room because there is no fresh air intake until someone opens a door to enter. When the door is closed, the only source for incoming air is from floor drains installed to carry off wastes.
The situation is not only unsanitary, but also ripe for spreading airborne viruses that are harmful to the animals, Zilar said.
The shelter processes about 2,700 cats and 2,200 dogs a year. Hundreds are euthanized.
But Zilar and her staff try to make the animals as comfortable as possible.
There are several cat rooms and outdoor runs for the dogs. The animals are carefully screened and provided microchips for identification before they are released or adopted, she said.
But the cleanliness and health issues are unavoidable, Zilar said.
"In theory, we could probably keep the shelter another 10 years, but at what level of care?" Crutchfield said.
Replacing the facility would require finding another location because Pasco owns the land and building.
Crutchfield said whatever happens "will be several years out," and will depend on finding a new location that is centrally located, has the proper zoning and is both accessible and visible to the public.
"Now we have to go back to our councils and ask for a timing commitment," he said.