Fines Should Be Dedicated to Dogs – Not Judicial Computers

By Amy Worden

Every day, Pennsylvania dog wardens head into courtrooms across the state to enforce the Commonwealth’s Dog Law. They appear before magisterial district judges to argue cases involving the many dogs who are kept in unsafe and inhumane kennels and to ensure kennel operators who are found guilty are punished.

While the fines are pitifully low – on average $200 per offense, or a fraction of the retail cost of the typical puppy mill puppy – they add up.Gertie Chair

Last year the total amount in fines imposed on dog law violators was $287,000. But the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, which relies entirely on license fees and these fines for its survival, kept less than $70,000 of that amount. While the bureau keeps the license fees, all court fines collected over and above that $70,000 threshold are transferred to a fund that supports the statewide judicial computer system.

This inexplicable siphoning of dog law funds has been going on for more than 30 years.

Since 1997, the bureau has collected $5.6 million in hard fought court battles against the worst puppy millers. Of that amount, the bureau has kept a mere $1.4 million, the rest went to the Judicial Computer System Augmentation Account.

Clearly, the agency tasked with ensuring kennels are safe and humane all the while being tethered to an unrelated fund that is choking the life out of it.

There is no clear explanation exists as to why the dog law bureau is subject to this annual transfer. The judicial system already assesses an $8 “computer” fee on all cases heard in Pennsylvania courts.

Also unclear is why or how the $70,000 threshold was set. This creates a disincentive for dog wardens to cite guilty kennel operators and to prosecute cases; the loss of that money has dramatic impact on the dog law “restricted” account.

What is clear is that the bureau is running out of funds.

This inability to keep the full court fines costs the bureau on average $250,000 yearly – funds that could be spent on wardens’ salaries and equipment.

fern.jpgMore troubling is that the cost of dog licenses has not increased in more two decades. All together, this paints a bleak fiscal picture for the agency that polices breeding kennels and shelters in an effort to protect the safety of tens of thousands of dogs statewide. The number of state dog wardens is plummeting as a result. The state now has 41 dog wardens, down from a high of 60, forcing some wardens to cover multiple counties. When dog wardens retire or leave, positions are going unfilled, there are fewer wardens to inspect kennels, follow up on violation tips, transport stray dogs, investigate unlicensed kennels and dangerous dog cases, and prepare cases for prosecution.

Last year dog wardens conducted more than 5,000 kennel inspections and issued almost 3,000 citations.

In its recently released annual report, the Department of Agriculture projects the restricted account will go negative as early as January 2020.

“The only reason the Dog Law Restricted Account has not gone negative to date is due to extraordinary management measures, such as not filling critical vacancies or making necessary IT investments. If the bureau maintains the current financial course, it will no longer be able to keep dogs and the public safe,” the report said. “That means increasingly fewer dog wardens to pick up strays, inspect kennels, or investigate dog bites and illegal kennels. It also means the bureau will no longer be able to track dangerous dogs, leaving the public without the information they need to know whether there is a dangerous dog in their neighborhood.”

Legislation has been introduced to address the fund transfers and increase license fees in the past without success.

Rep. Jason Ortitay (R., Allegheny) is the latest lawmaker to seek to end the annual transfer. He has introduced a bill (HB 1277) that would “address this issue by exempting fines, fees and costs under the Dog Law from being transferred to the Judicial Computer System Augmentation Account.”

Legislation in the Senate (SB 663), sponsored by Sen. Judy Schwenk (D., Berks), would raise the basic dog license fee for a spayed/neutered pet from $6.50 to $10 annually, with the option of a lifetime license and a reduced fee for senior citizens and those with disabilities. By comparison, the dog license fee in Ohio is $18 and up to $21 a year in New Jersey. A dog license reform bill also is being drafted by Rep. Eddie Day Pachinski (D., Luzerne) in the House.

Almost 11 years have passed since Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law the historic changes that made Pennsylvania’s dog law the toughest in the nation and a model for other states. The dog-loving public needs to be aware that the bureau tasked with enforcing it is being bled dry. But with restored funding from fines and a significant – but not unreasonable – license fee increase, human and canine citizens of the Commonwealth can be assured of its healthy future.

amybroAmy Worden covered state politics and government for The Philadelphia Inquirer in Harrisburg for 15 years. She founded and wrote the newspaper’s animal issues blog Philly Dawg for six years and it continues to live on Facebook. A lifelong animal lover, her first animal cause was raising money to stop the slaughter of wild mustangs for dog food. Currently, one dog (Olivia), one horse (Chloe) and more than a few cats call her mom.

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Categories: Featured, Pennsylvania Law and animals, Pennsylvania Politics, Pennsylvania politics and animals, Uncategorized

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