HAYS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — A Hays County animal volunteer said it like this: A regional animal shelter in Hays County isn’t only an immediate need, it should have been built ten years ago. Tuesday, we got our first look at what that shelter might actually look like and cost — though it likely won’t come to fruition for several years.

Right now, lost and found and homeless animals in Hays County go to the San Marcos city-run shelter, but the volunteer, who spoke at Tuesday’s Hays County Commissioners Court, said there are “cages stacked everywhere” at the shelter, which doesn’t have enough room to meet the demand. It means animals are not getting the care they need, and neither are the staff, she said.

According to County Judge Ruben Becerra’s office, that problem was made worse by the pandemic which “exacerbated the proper handling of pets that were being dropped off” at the only shelter in the area. This made it “almost impossible” to humanely care for all of the animals in the shelter’s care.

That’s where a regional animal shelter — which would offer housing, separation prevention and veterinarian services for the entire county — could alleviate some of the stress put on the San Marcos location. Tuesday, a group presented its feasibility study for a new, central shelter which for the first time laid out the cost and services it could provide.

“You have the opportunity to do this right. Make no mistake this is a social issue. This is not just about pets, it’s about people,” said Dr. Sara Pizano with Team Shelter, the group in charge of the feasibility study. Pizano stressed the county should focus on services first and sheltering animals second. Those services could help families reunite with their animals, keep their animals at home and make sure they stay healthy, among other resources such as spay and neuter.

“Study after study shows people just needed temporary help and they really did want to keep their pets,” Pizano said. “This is all about designing systems.”

Aside from programs that would ultimately help keep animals out of the shelter, the new proposed space would also provide 60 kennels for dogs and 50 for cats, according to Heather Lewis, an architect from Animal Arts, another group involved in the study.

Based on its analysis, a central location could be most beneficial for the community, likely somewhere near Kyle, Lewis said. The shelter could cost more than $23 million to build.

“Animal shelters are very expensive, very expensive. And if you think about most communities they get one in their lifetime,” Lewis said.

That was one of the pinch points for commissioners Tuesday, though they were only being presented the feasibility study and not voting on any actionable measures.

“The massive staffing, the lack of regionalization for the county has a concern to me,” Commissioner Lon Smith said. He further explained that the number of staff members recommended in the feasibility study outpaced that of transportation workers in the county. He also asked why the west side of the county was not considered as a location for the shelter.

“We’re still very open to where that location is going to be,” Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe countered. Groups that worked on the project also noted that they analyzed population growth, ease of access and socioeconomic factors in their decision to locate the shelter more centrally.

“How it’s done, where it’s done, all of those I think are still open for discussion,” Commissioner Lon Shell said. The other factors yet to be determined include who would even run the shelter, likely a nonprofit, and where the money would come from.

Becerra said it’s unlikely all of the funding would come from the county, as this would be a regional effort. Still, that would need to be discussed with city leaders within the county. The process for getting the shelter will likely take years, even if commissioners act on it quickly.

“I just look forward to our next steps as we continue to move along,” Ingalsbe said.

You can read the summary of the feasibility study here.