County working on dog control ordinance

\With responsibility for dog control inside Sussex County transferring to county officials in January, county council members and staff began work this week on adoption of Chapter 60 of county code, the ordinance setting up the rules for the county’s new dog-control operations.

In preliminary discussion at the council’s Nov. 2 meeting, county staff noted that most of the requirements of pet owners, as well as kennel and retail dog business owners, are already in place in state law.

The bulk of Chapter 60 will, in fact, simply restate existing state requirements for the licensing of individual dogs, kennels and dog businesses, while establishing a new schedule of fees that will come a little closer to making the operations pay for themselves – even if actually making them revenue-neutral is still a long way off.

For example, the current state license for a spayed or neutered dog costs $3, or $6 for an unaltered dog. Sussex County’s proposed fees would increase that cost to $10 for an altered dog or $15 for an unaltered one.

Kennel licenses will continue to be graduated based on the number of dogs being kept, such as four to 12, 25 to 49 and 50 or more, but those fees will also increase.

County staff estimated that the State of Delaware currently takes in about $23,000 in individual license fees per year in Sussex, based on the known number of dogs and the current fees. But dog control in Sussex costs about $600,000 per year – generating a funding shortfall that the state budget has always covered.

Under the new, increased fees proposed by county staff, assuming the same number of dogs are licensed, the county’s income from dog licenses will still only come to about $68,000, leaving more than $500,000 in expenses for the county to cover from other revenue sources.

“This is a major money loss for the county,” Council President Vance Phillips said on Tuesday. “It’s a half-million-dollar hole, but what can you do?”

County staff have suggested some additional funding possibilities, including a low-number dog license program in which an additional fee would be charged to those wishing to obtain the special licenses, or an additional fee for county dog-control staff to deliver a stray dog home to its owner, rather than having the owner come to the central kennel location.

The ordinance includes a process for the council to directly approve such programs in the future if it wishes, rather than requiring another public hearing if they are considered after the original ordinance is adopted.

One-year licensing to start each January

Council members did express concern on Tuesday with some limitations of the dog licensing program that were proposed for at least its first year.

The new program would offer only one-year licenses, requiring dog owners to purchase a new license each January that would expire at the end of December. Licenses purchased after Jan. 1 would not be pro-rated, so even those buying a license in the fall for a new dog would pay the full one-year license fee.

“Whether it’s for one year or three years, it seems like the same effort,” Councilman George Cole pointed out of staff involvement.

County Administrator David Baker said state officials had recommended the one-year license period, because, they said, it made administration of the licensing program much easier and it was much easier for individual dog owners to know when they had to renew the licenses.

Cole also questioned the decision not to have a 12-month licensing period that begins when the license is purchased.

“To be practical about it, we’re not going to put them in jail if they get a dog in September and don’t get the license until January,” county staff in charge of the program said.

Fines for not obtaining a dog license will remain the same as they currently are: $50 for a first offense and $100 for each subsequent offense within 12 months of the first.

Seeing-eye and other guide dogs and K-9 police officers have their license fees waived. Licenses are also not required for dogs until they are 6 months old, so those with a litter of puppies will have a chance to find the pups new homes before they must purchase licenses.

“We thought it was much simpler with us getting into this for this first time to issue all the licenses at one particular time,” staff noted. “Next year, we might be able and willing to issue multi-year licenses.”

No reminder system for the renewals is planned, but staff said they can consider such a system in the future.

Dog licenses should be purchased in the dog’s primary area of residence, Baker emphasized, but there will be reciprocity between Delaware’s three counties on dog licensing – a dog licensed in one county will be considered to be licensed in the other two.

License retailers taken out of business

Another change in the licensing system is a move away from retail sellers of dog licenses.

Instead of being able to purchase the license at a local pet shop or veterinary office, for instance, dog owners will be able to pick up a mail-in form at such locations – as well as at county offices, and perhaps libraries – and mail them in with their certification of the dog’s required vaccinations being up-to-date and payment for the license. A license tag will be mailed back to them.

The county will also be offering dog licensing online through a new Web site, where owners can fill out the same information and make payment online. The tags will be mailed to the dog owner after they complete that process.

A return to a system in which veterinary offices and other pet-related businesses could serve as retailers for dog licenses could also be considered in the future, according to staff, but they noted that there had been concerns about the reliability of retailers sending in the paperwork and keeping track of the money paid for licenses at such locations.

“We could set up a process where veterinarians or SPCA agencies or businesses can sell dog licenses, but … we’d like to try using the Web site, mail and the county administrative building as locations to sell dog licenses. We could sell them right at the building permit counter,” said Baker.

Starting in January, county dog-control authorities will also take over inspection of facilities for kennels and retail dog outlets – something that is currently done once per year for those locations, by Kent County SPCA employees.

If those inspections do not satisfy requirements for humane handling of the dogs, a warning is issued. If the problems are not corrected in 10 to 60 days, fines and other penalties are assessed according to state code. The state code for humane treatment remains the guiding document for the inspections.

Having received preliminary comments from kennel owners leading up to Nov. 2’s meeting, Phillips noted that they had taken issue with certain provisions of the proposed county dog-control ordinance.

“I’m expecting an earful this week,” Phillips said on Tuesday.

Council members also pointed to some confusion about the existing kennel licensing provisions, which require a kennel license for anyone owning more than four dogs, whether that’s as pets, for breeding, for hunting or otherwise.

The kennel licenses eliminate the requirement for individual licenses for each dog, but not everyone with more than four dogs wants to have their property labeled as a kennel, as was indicated in a recent hearing before the county’s Board of Adjustments.

“There may be a separate issue with zoning if someone has that number of dogs,” Baker also noted.

“If it seems complicated, it might deter people from doing it,” Cole added. “It’s easy for people not to license a dog.”

With expectations of some concerns arising about the ordinance from some dog owners and some dog-business owners, council members agreed to consider the proposed ordinance for at least another week and asked that it be placed on the county Web site for public review.

A hearing on the ordinance can be scheduled no earlier than the first week of December, after which the council can vote to adopt it or to make changes. Significant changes would mean the ordinance would have to have another public hearing, however.

Council members planned to discuss the ordinance again at their Nov. 10 meeting.