County urges pause for changes to dog control

With legislation pending in the state’s General Assembly that would reassign responsibility for dog-control operations from the state to its three counties, Sussex County Council on Dec. 9 discussed whether, when and how, the county would take on that job.

As it currently stands, dog control in Sussex County is handled by the Kent County SPCA, through a contract with the State of Delaware. That contract expires on June 30, 2009, pushing state legislators to make changes to the program in their next legislative session, which begins in January and ends June 30.

However, councilmen on Tuesday expressed concern about whether the county could even begin to get a county-based program organized in time to meet such a deadline, just more than six months away. That would require not only the passage of legislation at the state level but also at the county level, as well as either organization of an in-house dog-control department or bidding by outside contractors, such as the Kent County SPCA, for the work.

Currently, the county pays out approximately $600,000 each year for its portion of the dog-control services contracted through the Kent County SPCA. The state handles oversight of that contract, even though the county pays the tab.

But officials at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) have urged legislators to adopt legislation that would officially get the issue off the state’s plate and put it on a county-wide basis instead.

If such legislation is passed, the county would become responsible – directly or indirectly – for such tasks as inspection of dog kennels and dealers, issuance of dog licenses and enforcement of dog-control regulations, such as those prohibiting wandering dogs and requiring humane treatment by individual owners and canine-focused businesses.

County Administrator David Baker said Tuesday that there isn’t much call for change to how the county’s dog-control operations currently function, through the Kent County SPCA.

“[The SPCA] appears to be doing a good job,” he said. “There are not a tremendous number of complaints. They have had the contract for three years, and they have expressed interest in renewing it.”

Baker said the particular concern for the county is that the currently proposed legislation, which originated with DNREC, indicated that the General Assembly would like the responsibility or dog control to be turned over to county governments as of July 1, 2009.

“That’s not really enough time to shift the responsibility to the counties,” he said, noting that even DNREC officials agree on that point, as it would require legislation to be adopted and for the counties to issue requests-for-proposals (RFPs) or establish their own programs in-house in a very short time. “That’s rather cumbersome to do very quickly.”

“Our feeling – and Kent County agrees – is that there is insufficient time to have appropriate legislation passed and establish a county-run dog control program,” he said, suggesting that the council write a letter to state officials supporting at least a one-year extension for the legislation, so that the counties would have sufficient time to at least do an RFP.

Councilman Vance Phillips (R-District 4, Laurel) asked, “Has there been any attempt to determine if we can do it more cheaply in-house?”

Baker said there hadn’t been, as yet, but he noted that the county had been putting money into paying costs for kennels and other needs at the Kent County SPCA.

“We could probably earn more money from dog licensing than the state does,” Baker also posited. “It seems that there are many dog owners who have unlicensed dogs, and the state is not really looking at that very hard.”

Councilman Dale Dukes (D-District 1, Laurel) gave some historical context for the move to county-run dog control.

“Several years ago, they came to us and said the program needed $4.6 million for the program to even work,” he noted. “They talked about their limited resources, what they had to do and what they needed to do.

“Is this a deal where you pay and you don’t get to have a say in what they do?” he asked Baker.

“That’s pretty much the way it is now,” Baker replied.

The proposed legislation would give the county the authority to do the dog-control functions the state currently administers and would automatically adopt into county code the portion of state code controlling how those operations run.

The result would be a requirement for at least three dog-control officers to be operating in Sussex County (and that many or more in the other two Delaware counties). But the county would then need to adopt its own ordinances to determine things such as license fees.

On that topic, councilmen expressed some caution.

“The feeling from the state was that the dog license was a nominal fee because it was being used to track inoculations and if they’d raise it, it would discourage people bringing them in,” said Dukes.

“It’s something we’d have to subsidize, to be sure,” added Councilman George Cole (R-District 5, Bethany Beach).

Council members expressed a consensus that the issue would be best put off for a year. Some delay could already result, if unintentionally, from the presence of a new general assembly as of January.

But even with an extra year to get such a program in place, councilmen appeared leery of the responsibilities it will add to county government.

“The legislation calls for what the state does now?” Council President Finley Jones (D-District 2, Greenwood) asked, receiving an affirmative response as he reviewed the requirements in the legislation.

“No wonder they can’t get anything done, if this is what they’re being required to do now – temperature controls, shelter from sunlight,” he read from the extensive list. “We ought to get somebody to look at this. … Some of these rules, there’s just no way…”

Phillips agreed that the county might want to have someone look at the rules and even create a set of rules specifically for Sussex County. It was especially noted that the current requirements make no exemptions for hunting dogs in regards to how they are kept by their owners.

Council members expressed a consensus on Tuesday that they should write a letter to state officials requesting additional time for any change to county-based dog control. Jones recommended that delay include a one-year extension for the existing contract with the Kent County SPCA, to allow the county to get ready for the change.