Sussex County adopts dog-control ordinance


Dog owners in Sussex County will notice a few changes when it comes time to tag their dogs next year. The Sussex County Council, at its Tuesday, Dec. 1, meeting, adopted a new ordinance that defines the county’s authority when it comes to dogs, sets licensing fees for dogs and establishes penalties for violators.

The changes came after the State of Delaware in June transferred dog control responsibilities to the counties beginning in 2010. In June, the General Assembly mandated that all counties take over dog control responsibilities by Jan. 1.

Historically, the State has managed dog control statewide, but in the past two years, Sussex has provided $1.2 million to help subsidize the cost in anticipation of the transition. Dog control in Sussex has been handled for three years by the Kent County SPCA, under a contract with the state.

Kent SPCA awarded county contract

The Sussex County Council on Tuesday also awarded a one-year contract to the Kent County SPCA to continue to provide dog control services in the county, now under the county’s own auspices.

The Kent SPCA’s duties will include investigating complaints, retrieving unleashed dogs and inspecting kennel operations. Under the contract, Sussex County will pay the Kent County SPCA $671,750 for one year of service – slightly more than the $600,000 per year the county had paid to subsidize the service under State control.

Sussex County Administrator David Baker reported on Dec. 1 that the county’s committee formed to make recommendations on the issue had negotiated contract details with both the Delaware SPCA and Kent County SPCA before choosing to recommend the Kent County SPCA for the contract.

In addition to providing dog-control services to the State for three years, the Kent SPCA has also been selected by New Castle and Kent Counties as the contractor for dog-control services in those areas for 2010.

“They have a good reputation for providing quality service,” Baker noted.

The Kent SPCA will provide eight employees to Sussex County for dog-control services, at 16 hours per day, 365 days per year, with some overnight services offered. Those eight employees were compared to the six employees the Delaware SPCA had offered. Additionally, officers assigned to Kent County would assist in Sussex as needed, Baker said.

Offering a local economic angle, the Kent SPCA also told county officials that five of its six existing Sussex control officers are Sussex County residents and that it would continue to contract with kennels near Dagsboro for services required for dog control.

The service was also available to start immediately on Jan. 1, Baker pointed out, with little or no transition required since the Kent SPCA is already providing dog-control in Sussex through the State.

While such services are not part of the dog-control contract with Sussex County, officials said on Tuesday that the Kent SPCA would continue to accept non-dog-control-related animal calls from the public, such as reports of feral cat colonies and problems with wild animals. Those services are offered as part of the SPCA’s normal operations, handled through its own funding system.

The contract with the Kent SPCA provides that it can negotiate with the county for two additional one-year extensions, subject to approval by the County Council and consent of the SPCA.

Safe Haven Animal Sanctuary has also asked the county to consider allowing it to bid for dog-control services starting in 2011, as the sanctuary near Georgetown gets up and running in 2010.

“We believe this is the most economical and sensible approach to managing dog-control responsibilities at the County level,” Baker said on Tuesday. “The Kent County SPCA has been providing dog-control services throughout the state for the past couple of years, and we believe their experience, along with the fact that they have the resources and staff already in place, make them the most logical choice to be awarded the contract.”

License fees going up but still don’t cover cost

With the transition to county-provided dog-control, the public will see some noticeable differences in the administration of dog control, including an increase in fees to better cover the cost of providing services, Baker said.

However, Baker noted that the increased licensing fees will only generate approximately $68,000 in revenue annually, far below the total cost of dog-control services – more than $670,000.

Currently, state fees to license a spayed or neutered dog are $3 per year, or $6 per year for an unaltered dog. The licenses run from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, regardless of when they are purchased.

Beginning Jan. 1, dog owners must obtain an annual license from the county by March 1 of each year for animals 6 months or older. For spayed and neutered dogs, the cost will be $10 annually; for non-spayed and unneutered dogs, the cost will be $15 yearly.

Dogs must be current on their rabies vaccinations at the time the license is obtained. Fees would be waived for seeing-eye, lead or guide dogs and those that have previously served in a branch of the U.S. military. Other fees set by the ordinance include those for kenneling operations, which range from $60 to $200 per year, depending on the number of dogs kenneled.

All licenses will be valid through Dec. 31 each year. Owners who fail to comply with the ordinance licensing requirements could face an initial $50 fine, with a maximum fine of $100 for repeat offenses within a 12-month period.

Licenses will be available for purchase directly from Sussex County government. In the coming weeks, applications will be available online at www.sussexcountyde.gov and at authorized locations, such as kennels and shelters, as well as at the County Administrative Offices building, at 2 The Circle, in Georgetown.

Applicants may submit their dog license request in person, by mail or through the online form that will be available on the county Web site.

Ordinance largely unchanged from state law

Other details of county dog control were also established in an ordinance adopted by the Sussex County Council on Dec. 1, though most of those elements won’t be a change from the existing law.

Eddie Parker, director of Sussex County’s Assessment Division, explained, “We’ve basically taken the state ordinance as it exists and put it into our ordinance.”

As Parker noted, the only significant change the county has made in existing dog-control laws is the fees associated with certain aspects the ordinance. Otherwise, all the provisions currently exist in state law.

“That’s not to say that once we get into this, down the road, we won’t feel it necessary to bring some changes before the council,” Parker allowed, with support from Council Member George Cole, who urged the council to go ahead and adopt the ordinance on Tuesday, under pressure of the Jan. 1 implementation deadline, while he acknowledged that the coming year may provide some areas the council will want changed.

“We feel maintaining the ordinance as is in place by the State is the best way to go,” Parker said of the immediate future.

Council President Vance Phillips noted there had been some concern over the increases to the license fees but emphasized on Tuesday that the ordinance had been proposed with the $10 and $15 fees “set relatively high, because we do not have authority to increase the fees” once the ordinance has been introduced, without requiring another public hearing. “But we can reduce them,” he offered.

Parker pointed out that the State of Delaware had capped the license fees for the first two years of county-run dog-control, with the maximum fees being those $10 and $15 fees.

Fees, enforcement raise concerns

The limited public comment on the ordinance on Tuesday was a mix of support and concern.

Karen Sullivan, owner of a boarding kennel and dog-breeding operation, commended the council’s efforts in making the ordinance accessible and understandable, saying that she was “pleased to see the county outlining some clear expectations,” as opposed to the language in a state dog-control ordinance that was introduced in the legislature a year ago but was not adopted.

“This would implement the minimum standards of animal husbandry,” she said, noting the importance she holds on maintaining good husbandry practices as someone in the business of dogs.

Sullivan said she would, however, like to see a tiered system of fines for those who do not comply with the dog-licensing requirements, as a single dog owner not licensing their dog is a different situation than a kennel owner not getting a license that could cover dozens of dogs.

She said she also had concerns about the minimum of 10 feet of tether for a dog kept outside. She said that amount should be more.

Council watchdog Dan Cramer recommended the council re-consider its flat requirement for a dog owner to have proof of a current rabies shot when licensing a dog, noting the potential for owners to license their dogs shortly before an annual or three-year rabies shot expires and then manage to not have enforcement of the requirement for rabies vaccination until as long as nearly three more years, if they were permitted to purchase a three-year license.

“It is the responsibility of the dog owner to obtain the rabies vaccination,” emphasized Baker. “They can get a license if they provide proof of a current rabies vacation.

“We can ask for the proof of vaccination to cover the full period of the license,” he pointed out, but he said the county was planning to follow a similar process to the State. If someone files for a license on Internet, the county will ask them to sign off on the requirement and say they have valid rabies vaccination.

“We cannot require proof of that unless they mail in a copy,” Baker said. “But if they come in to get the license at the counter, we would ask for a copy of the vaccination record, similar to the State. The State doesn’t require mailing in of the certificate, but they do ask that the applicant sign off that they have a valid rabies vaccination, subject to criminal penalties.”

Council members asked if the county’s online licensing system could involve a records check or ask for data such as the rabies tag number or name and location of the veterinarian who administered the vaccination.

“We could include that on the Web site,” Baker acknowledged, while asserting that the county would have no way to verify rabies vaccinations were current before issuing a license online.

Cramer also suggested that there needed to be some element of zoning enforcement for dog owners when they apply for their licenses.

Michael Shellman, who lives near Bridgeville, said his own experience with a new neighbor who has multiple beagles had brought him to Georgetown on Tuesday to ask for stricter enforcement of nuisances caused by dogs – particularly when dog owners have multiple dogs and outdoor kennels.

“What happens if the dogs are noisy overnight?” Shellman asked regarding the proposed dog-control employees’ shifts. “You can’t call the state police because this state has no noise ordinance. The ordinance should control noise and the amount of dogs, and it should require more checks than just the inspector seeing how many dogs are in the yard. There could be some in the house, too.

“I want my peace and quiet back, and you guys are going to be the enforcing agency now. Other counties have strong fines for noise.”

Council Member Sam Wilson said he had concerns about privacy rights if Shellman was suggesting an inspector should go into a home whenever they see a dog in the yard, to see if there were more inside.

“When you see a shed set up with two dogs runs on the side, would you consider that a kennel?” Shellman asked of the county’s restrictions on dog “kennels” without a license. “If it says you have to have 5 acres of land to have a kennel, why can a gentleman set up a kennel in his back yard?”

In response, Sullivan pointed out that the county currently allows as many as four dogs per property before owners may need a kennel license. Having a kennel-type structure on the property is not a requirement for having such a license.

“Anyone on any size property can have four dogs and not be considered a kennel,” she emphasized.

Still, Shellman said he felt the county ordinance fell short on enforcement for some common problems.

Time crunch outweighs reasons for delay

Council Member Michael Vincent said he felt some of those commenting on Tuesday had some valid points. He advocated tabling the vote on adopting the ordinance for two weeks, but since some of the suggested changes would require another public hearing anyway, the council majority supported proceeding with adoption and considering any changes later, though a separate process.

“Lowering fees has been mentioned,” noted Phillips, and “I feel we would benefit from having this out in the public,” he added, suggesting the council wait on adoption.

However, Cole said that with the fees going to help pay for the cost of the program, he didn’t think lowering the fees should really be a consideration.

“If we’re trying to make the fees pay for the program, we should probably make them $200 per dog, but we’re tripling the fees,” Phillips countered.

“For the person who’s not going to register a dog, it’s not going to make any difference to them about the fees,” Cole replied. “This is reasonable and fairly well balanced, and we can always amend this later on. Let’s get started with something and see what kind of reaction we have.”

Vincent opted to vote in favor of adoption of the ordinance, citing the time constraints to start enforcement on Jan. 1, but Phillips still supported a delay. The council voted 4-1 to adopt the ordinance, with Phillips opposed.

To learn more about dog licensing requirements in Sussex County, click on the “Dog Licenses” link listed under the Online Services tab of the county’s Web site; to read the adopted ordinance, visit the “Ordinances” page, also listed under Online Services.

For questions about dog control services and licensing requirements, call (302) 855-7824.

Also on Dec. 1, the council voted unanimously to annex a 3.1 acre parcel on Muddy Neck Road, west of the Assawoman Canal, into the South Bethany sewer district. The parcel is proposed to be subdivided into two lots for two single-family homes. The bulk of the property, which is adjacent to the existing sewer district, is wetlands and will not be developed.

The council also approved disbursement of $143,000 in human-service grants to a variety of Sussex non-profits, ranging in amounts from $200 to $2,000. The grants come as part of an annual program in which grant requests from the prior year’s grantees are invited by the county and considered along with new requests.

While the council unanimously approved the distribution of the funds – which had been cut this year along with the rest of the county budget– Council Member Joan Deaver noted that she had had questions from her constituents “about why government is giving money to charities. In the future, I want to look into this a little more, but I’ll vote to approve it this time,” she said.