Caged cats line the halls of Camden County's animal shelter, and kennels are packed with pit bulls.

As at many shelters, the recession has increased drop-offs, but overcrowding at the Blackwood facility, once home to the tubby media darling Prince Chunk, predates this bad economy. Since 2006, Camden County mayors have dreamed of doubling the shelter's size.

Last week, architects tweaked designs that have been months in the making, while towns such as Lindenwold and Pennsauken made do with animal-control plans far from their liking.

Freeholders are expected to vote next month on a plan to expand the building and turn its operation over to a consortium of mayors. But the construction budget has grown to $4 million from $2.5 million, and the completion date has been pushed to 2011.

Although concerned about the cost, officials say the project needs to go ahead.

"Once you get involved and see how many stray animals and feral cats are out there, it's just overwhelming," said Edward Grochowski, Pennsauken's assistant administrator. "You can't be shortsighted about what's going to happen in the future."

Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. says he hopes recessionary construction prices will drive costs down.

"We've outgrown the shelter. We need to build," he said.

In the meantime, the shelter, which is run by the nonprofit Animal Welfare Society of Camden County, operates under a "satisfactory 'pending' per expansion" rating from the state.

Last year in May, state inspectors cited the shelter for problems in fire inspection, disinfection, euthanasia, feeding frequency, cleanliness, and disease control.

In September - the most recent state visit - inspectors noted "significant progress," particularly in management and protocols.

"No sick animals were viewed in the general population. This is an immense improvement," according to the Sept. 4 report. "All remaining violations are to be corrected by the Camden County authorities with expansion."

"The state knows and we certainly know that we're going to be expanding the shelter," said Patrick Shuttleworth, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the shelter. "Health and safety are fine. To spend thousands on a Band-Aid now wouldn't be a prudent way to spend tax dollars."

Architects from J.K. McKernan Jr. & Associates of Cherry Hill have studied other New Jersey shelters and worked with the Humane Society of the United States to design new ventilation systems, kennel runs, offices, and educational spaces, Shuttleworth said.

"A shelter is not just an office park where you put in furniture; it has unique needs," he said.

Also, "to get 28 towns to agree on something took some time," Shuttleworth said.

In 2006, Burlington County spent $2.4 million to nearly triple the square footage of its Westampton shelter. It added 50 dog runs for a total of 100 and 144 cat cages to increase capacity to 240. All 40 county municipalities now use the shelter.

Camden County's shelter can house about 150 dogs and 250 cats at one time, "but that's pushing it," said Julie Zammer, shelter manager since last winter.

In 2008, the shelter handled 3,766 cats and 1,892 dogs. About 81 percent were strays, abandoned, or trapped by animal-control officers, most in the City of Camden and Gloucester Township. About a third were euthanized. That is lower than the state average.

Intake was up about 25 percent in 2008 over 2006 and likely will be higher this year, said shelter treasurer Adrienne Christatos-Timko.

The shelter depends on municipal fees - $55 for each animal dropped off - and county support for about half its $1 million annual operating budget. The rest comes from customer fees and donations.

Four private shelters were serving municipalities when the county shelter was built in 1997. Two closed suddenly in 2005-06, causing a crisis in housing strays and surrendered animals, officials said.

Pennsauken opened a temporary shelter in a warehouse, but the township is eager to get out of the animal-sheltering business, Grochowski said. The service costs the town about $160,000 a year.

" 'Temporary' is almost four years now," said Nancy Welsh, director of the shelter, called Almost Home.

With a 12-member staff and a cadre of volunteers, Welsh takes in animals from Audubon, Audubon Park, Gloucester City, Merchantville, Pennsauken, and Woodlynne, and provides animal pickup for Collingswood, Oaklyn, and Mount Ephraim. Those animals go to the county shelter.

"It's more than we expected in the beginning, but we're proud of the things we've been able to do," Welsh said.

Eleven towns contract for shelter services with the private Animal Orphanage in Voorhees.

Monthly costs to the Animal Orphanage run Lindenwold about $3,500 because pets are frequently abandoned in the borough's many apartment complexes, Mayor Frank DeLucca said.

The borough pays "more for animal control and sheltering than EMS care," said DeLucca, who leads the mayors consortium lobbying for county expansion.

Gloucester Township pays about $2,700 a month to the county shelter but has reduced its fees lately through better management of wild cats, business administrator Tom Cardis said.

DeLucca and Cardis said towns probably could save by combining animal-control services through the county shelter. Twenty-eight of 35 towns have agreed to send animals there after the expansion, DeLucca said.

The county contracts shelter management to a nonprofit organization for five years at a time, and individual towns handle animal control. When construction is complete, the mayors consortium will hire a management team and could negotiate joint animal control as well, Shuttleworth said.

The Animal Welfare Society, whose contract expires this month, plans to bid for management until construction is complete and hopes to win over the mayors as well, Zammer said.

For now, every day is a fight for space. She and director Niki Dawson place as many animals as possible with breed rescues and foster homes, but on days they run out of cages, they make tough decisions.

"The difficult thing with this is that you can't save them all," DeLucca said.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Henry at 856-779-3970 or chenry@phillynews.com.