Pa. animal welfare agency on verge of going broke

Posted: January 23, 2012

HARRISBURG - Without fresh revenue, a fund that plays a vital role in protecting dogs in Pennsylvania will run out of money by next year, state officials say.

Battered by a multi-million-dollar fund transfer in 2010, plummeting interest rates and stagnant dog license sales, the state's "restricted" account, created to pay for a range of animal welfare-related services, is shrinking fast.

State officials say the Dog Law Restricted Account, which in 2007 had a $14 million balance, may run out of money in 2013.

"What we are scared about is the dog-law restricted fund," said Michael Pechart, executive deputy secretary to the Corbett administration's agriculture secretary, George Greig.

Pechart said in a recent interview that the balance of the account, which is supported primarily by license fees for nearly a million dogs statewide plus fines from enforcement actions, now stands at about $2 million.

The fund pays salaries for 92 positions (19 of which are now vacant) within the Department of Agriculture - most of them dog wardens who inspect almost 3,000 kennels in Pennsylvania and enforce the dog law.

In addition to kennel inspections, dog wardens are responsible for picking up strays and responding to dangerous-dog calls.

The fund also is used to compensate farmers for livestock killed by dogs and coyotes, and provides grants to local humane societies around the state.

The Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement - which has since been downgraded to the Office of Dog Law Enforcement by Corbett's administration - grew out of a years-long debate as advocates fought for and won passage of legislation to crack down on large commercial kennels, also known as puppy mills.

The state has responded to the funding crisis by curbing wardens' overtime, leaving jobs unfilled and eliminating one high-level position - deputy secretary of dog law, a post created by then-Gov. Ed Rendell to lead efforts to crack down on substandard kennels.

Officials also considered eliminating a grant program that helps dozens of local humane societies pay utility bills. Last year that program gave out $550,000, mostly in $10,000-to-$15,000 grants to small shelters which depend on the funding, advocates say.

Instead funding will likely be scaled back in this year's budget, but state officials would not say by how much.

It won't be the first time the fund has been buffeted by budgetary needs, especially since the recession began. In 2010, Rendell and the legislature removed $4 million from the fund, which is supposed to be used only for dog-law activities, to cover a gap in the state's general budget.

While animal welfare activists would like the legislature to restore the funding in this year's budget, deep cuts expected to be announced by Corbett next month make that prospect unlikely.

"We have to get the $4 million back to start," said Tom Hickey, a member of the governor's Dog Law Advisory Board, which has not met since Corbett took office a year ago. "We know that there are a lot more dogs than there are being licensed."

Hickey said Delaware County, for instance, is estimated to have 150,000 dogs, but only 12,000 were licensed last year.

In addition, the agency collects hundreds of thousands in fines imposed on kennels cited for violations. But by law, the agency can only keep about $77,000 of those fines, a cap set long before increased enforcement meant more fees were collected.

Anything above that amount is sent to the state's court system to fund computer technology, a provision written into law when the judicial branch first established its computer systems 20 years ago.

"We need to look at the way the law was written to make the case to the legislature," said Hickey. "Why are we giving so much of what's collected in dog law violation fees to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts?"

Or, advocates say, hike the dog license fee, which is $6.45 a year for a spayed or neutered dog, and hasn't been increased in more than a decade. By comparison, an annual fishing license costs $22.

Tacking even a $1 increase onto the dog license fee could swiftly replenish the account, advocates say.

For the state's part, Pechart has said the Agriculture Department has also considered launching a public relations drive, perhaps through "robocalls" to urge people to pay the fee and get their pets licensed.

Anne Irwin, executive director of the Bucks County SPCA, said she thinks many dog owners do not make the connection between paying fees for licenses and how the proceeds are used.

"Even if you are sure that your own dog will never get loose and he wears a cute little name tag, your purchase of a dog license helps dogs across the state," she said in an e-mail.

Asked in a recent interview how he would fill the funding hole he helped create, Rendell said he supports raising the licensing fee to match the rate of inflation.

Of course, that would have to get by Corbett - who has so far resisted any fee increases.

Animal advocates say without a speedy solution, all the progress made in creating more humane conditions for dogs in breeding kennels is in jeopardy.

"My biggest fear all of our work is for naught," said Marsha Perelman, a member of the Dog Law Advisory Board who helped draft the 2008 law. "The department did a tremendous amount of good in making Pennsylvania a significantly more humane place for dogs, and with no continuing oversight there is a huge risk we will backslide."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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