Dog control expected to tap county coffers

State legislators last week voted to fundamentally change dog-control operations in Delaware, shifting responsibility for the licensing of dogs, oversight of kennels, retail dog outlets and animal shelters and of dog care, to the state’s three counties.

House Bill 233 – which was passed in the Senate about 2 a.m. on July 1, on a 17-0 vote with three senators absent, and unanimously in the House on June 29 – transfers to the counties administrative powers and duties relating to dogs and dog control formerly vested in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). The counties will take over that job on Jan. 1, 2010, but it’s not necessarily a responsibility they want.

Sussex County Council members have in recent weeks lamented the shift in responsibilities as an unfunded mandate that may require the county to add several full-time dog-control officers and cost it more than $500,000 in additional expenses that it can’t directly recoup through associated licensing fees.

Each of the state’s counties currently funds a portion of the state’s cost for dog control. The state has been administering the program, in recent years using the Kent County SPCA as its contractor for dog control in Sussex County. Sussex put in $583,000 in net funding for the state-administered program this year – $639,000 in costs, minus $56,000 in dog licenses and other fees collected from dog and dog-business owners.

But the costs of administering dog control within Sussex are likely to be considerably more costly, according to estimates from county officials.

County Administrator David Baker, speaking on behalf of Deputy Administrator Hal Godwin – the council’s legislative liaison – told the council on June 23 that even if dog licensing fees were doubled, the additional cost to the county still would be excess of $500,000.

License fees capped for two years

The county is unlikely to be able to recoup much of that additional outlay, at least in the near future, since HB 233, as passed in the General Assembly last week, caps the license fees for two years – preventing the counties from significantly increasing them to help offset the additional costs.

Dog licenses currently cost $3 for neutered animals and $6 for unneutered animals. The two-year cap sets maximum license fees at $10 for a neutered dog and $15 for an unneutered dog. While that’s a substantial increase over the current rates - if counties decide to raise the fees to the maximum under the cap – Godwin said the program’s cost, if spread over the number of dogs it must oversee, would work out to $103 per dog.

“It’s a money-loser,” Baker emphasized. “The dog license fees don’t fully fund it.”

That $103 figure was the origin of the cap legislators added to HB 233 this week, as Godwin related that sponsors of that amendment had been told that one or more of the counties might attempt to make the program actually break even, potentially raising dog license costs to as much as that $103 figure per dog.

“I told them we don’t do business like that,” Godwin said he had reassured the concerned legislators.

A compromise was reached on the cap before its passage in either house of the General Assembly, sunsetting the cap as of January of 2012.

“We can then change the rates in any way we see fit,” Godwin explained.

He said county officials had already been considering ways in which they might make up for the portions of the dog-control costs that aren’t recouped in regular licensing fees, such as perhaps charging extra for “vanity” dog tags, looking to reduce costs of administering the program through the use of use of outside agencies, possibly shifting licensing to the Internet to reduce the amount of the license cost lost to sellers and overhead.

Currently, sellers get $1 per license. “There needs to be some premium for sellers,” Baker acknowledged on June 23, emphasizing that nothing had been decided on these issues yet.

The county is also likely to aim to improve the number of dogs being licensed, with each county issuing licenses for dogs, retail dog outlets and kennels, as well as collecting fines of $50 or for lack of a license and $100 or more for subsequent offenses.

Costs to the county would particularly increase in terms of a requirement for the counties to inspect kennels and retail dog outlets. It would also have to adopt rules for care of dogs, which Baker said could be pulled from existing state ordinances.

He also noted that he was assured the Delaware Department of Justice will continue to prosecute violations for dog control – a concern for the county, as there are substantial legal costs involved in prosecuting such cases.

Baker said county officials were hoping that practice might be made more concrete with an amendment that would require that DoJ handle prosecutions, so the issue wouldn’t be come a matter of budgetary discretion in future years if DoJ officials changed their minds about continuing with the responsibility.

Switch decried as ‘unfunded mandate’

The previous county council’s position on the issue was that they wanted to see the state continue to administer the program. Kent County officials agreed. But New Castle County officials said they felt that if the county paid for the cost – as the counties have been – they should manage the program.

“There is something to be said for that, too,” said Baker on June 23.

But the current council expressed particular concern about how the county will pay for taking over dog control.

“They place all the burden of responsibility on us, without giving us the authority we feel is necessary to act on it,” said Council President Vance Phillips on June 23. By limiting the license rate, he said, “they’ll cause us to lose $500,000 on it.”

Phillips pointed to the state’s financial difficulties, saying they illustrate problems with fiscal discipline. “That may be the reason they’re having problems up there,” he said. “But this county has demonstrated fiscal discipline,” he added, referencing the cuts in the county’s recently passed budget and the lack of any increase in property tax, despite a substantial drop in revenue.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver said on June 23 that she could understand legislators’ concerns about giving the counties free rein over license fees that would have to go up tremendously to cover the real cost of the program.

“I would assume they’re afraid that if the county charges too much, people just wouldn’t register,” she said.

Baker said there was also some concern about whether dog owners would continue to get rabies vaccinations for their dogs if the process of dog licensing broke down over costs and they weren’t being routinely required to have proof of vaccination in order to renew or obtain licenses.

Councilman Sam Wilson said he was particularly concerned with the need to hire dog inspectors to monitor details such as HB 233’s requirements for conditions at dog kennels.

“We would have to have a lot more employees,” he said, to confirm that kennel temperatures did not go below 50 degrees, that bedding was kept dry. “It could go up $250,000 above this,” he added of the estimated additional costs to the county.

Outgoing County Attorney David Griffin, himself the owner of dogs and member of a dog club, noted that Delaware’s dog regulations were particularly stringent already, even before HB 233. And the county, if it is to fully enforce the regulations, may be taking on more costs than even the state had done.

“The dog regulations that have been in effect in state law since 1998 are probably among toughest in nation. They regulate every aspect of it, down to temperatures and that type of thing,” Griffin said. “I suspect the state hasn’t been enforcing every aspect of those laws because of budgetary issues that are causing them to push it off onto the county.”

Griffin advised the council that they could push to repeal the state law and let the counties adopt their own regulations.

“They appear to be trying to make sure that when the counties take over, they’re saddled with same law the state has in effect,” he said. “We could argue that if we have to take over enforcement, the county should be deciding the rules.”

Fee cap to sunset in 2012

Not all council members were focused on the notion of making the dog-control program better than self-sustaining.

While Phillips labeled the shift to county administration an “unfunded mandate,” Deaver said she felt the county had a responsibility to provide for good dog control, regardless of the cost.

“It’s a public service,” she said. “We don’t have to make money on every service we provide.”

“We don’t have to lose $500,000, either,” replied Councilman Michael Vincent.

“So you feel I should have to pay to take care of your dog?” Councilman Sam Wilson asked rhetorically of Deaver.

Griffin pointed to ways in which the county might consider finding additional revenue for dog control.

“Are there other revenue streams than licensing? If the State could recover it with licensing, why would they have required each county to contribute to the effort?” he asked, noting that only enforcement and fines were left for the county to use as additional revenue if the state limited licensing fees. “I would think we would want to object to them limiting the licensing fees,” he emphasized on June 23.

Baker wrote up those objections in a council appeal to the General Assembly. Godwin also appealed last week to the authors of the amendments capping the license fees, saying the council objected to the cap. Both objections supported the eventual compromise on the license fee cap that will sunset it in 2012, freeing up the counties to consider further increasing license fees unless the cap is acted upon again by the General Assembly.

“I told them taking the cap off in two years was better than what we had,” Godwin acknowledged late on June 30, as legislators neared their Wednesday-morning deadline to pass bills this legislative session.

Also amended in the final bill were requirements for all dogs to wear collars, with their tags attached, at all times.

Godwin said on June 30 that hunters had voiced concern over the requirement for their dogs to wear collars while out in the field, citing safety concerns because the collars might get tangled and pose a strangulation or drowning hazard to the dogs. They also objected to the dogs being required to wear collars while at home in a pen.

In response, amendments to HB 233, as adopted, also ensure that county dog tags may be removed and need not be worn by dogs at all times, when the dog is licensed as a kennel dog or at a retail dog outlet and is housed in an enclosure or pen, so long as the dog tag is readily available for review by a dog-control agent. Similarly, dogs engaged in the act of hunting are exempted from wearing county dog tags while they are hunting.

Wind-energy prohibitions prohibited

Also on the county council’s list of legislative concerns was House Bill 70, for which a substitute bill was passed last week, preventing most local governments and homeowners groups from prohibiting wind energy systems on single-family homes.

HS1 for HB70, complete with an amendment, passed in the Senate on a 17-0 vote on July 1 with three senators absent and in the House on June 18, on a 25-14 vote with two representatives not voting.

The bill prohibits any new local restrictions on wind-energy system installations from being enacted or enforced after the effective date of the bill – July 31 – through covenant, restriction, deed restriction, zoning restriction or subdivision restriction.

County and municipal governments and homeowner and similar associations are all affected, though the bill does not apply to multi-family dwellings or those in historic zoning districts, or in cases where restrictions already exist.

While HB70 prohibits the outright restriction of wind-energy systems, it also offers restrictions that are the maximum such a body can impose when they are to be installed: (1) a setback equal to the turbine height (the height of the tower plus the length of one blade); (2) noise limited to 5db above the existing average noise level or 60db total along the property line; and (3) no signage, advertising, flags, streamers, any decorative items or any item not related to the operation of the wind turbine, with electric wiring for the turbines placed underground for non-building integrated systems.

Additionally, such systems must be buffered from properties or structures on the Historic Register.

The Sussex County Council had expressed opposition to HB 70, citing its removal of authority from the county. Currently, the county requires a Board of Adjustments approval for installation of wind-energy systems in unincorporated areas, complete with a public hearing. Wind-energy system applications have made up a substantial portion of the BoA’s agenda in recent years as the systems have become more and more popular.

Deaver noted on June 30 that she was not among the council members who opposed the bill.

“I like this bill,” she said to get that support on the record. She was, however, the lone council member who did not oppose it.

The council’s other remaining legislative concern for this General Assembly session was not acted upon last week, though any of the bills introduced but not dealt with by 5 a.m. Wednesday morning can still be dealt with next year, as soon as the January 2010 resumption of the two-year session.

Senate Bill 132, which would require the state planning office to review each county land-use ordinance and any applications involving 50 or more units or more than 50,000 square feet, was not voted upon in the full senate last week, tabling its possible adoption at least until January.

An amendment to the bill would require review of such applications by the state planning office within 20 business days, unless mutually agreed to by the state planning office and applicant.

The bill, which made it out of senate committee review, was on the senate’s ready list for possible discussion on June 30 but did not go to a vote.

Godwin noted that there had been significant controversy over and opposition to the bill within the General Assembly. County council members had expressed a consensus of opposition to the bill, but Deaver again said she wasn’t opposed. “I don’t have any objection to working with the state on ordinances,” she said. “Ordinances are important.”