Feb. 25—Increased dog license fees could bring in $1.2 million this year for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Dog Law, if the proposal is approved by state legislators.
Department Secretary Russell Redding hopes it will be. Without the additional funding, lost dogs or mistreated canines could face an uncertain future, he said.
"The bureau cannot go on at this level," he said. "The fees no longer cover expenses."
He and other officials on Thursday implored members of the public to show their support by pressing their state legislators to approve the fee hike in an effort to adequately fund the bureau. Department spokeswoman Shannon Powers said fee differences for dogs that have been spayed or neutered and those that haven't would be eliminated under the proposal.
The annual license fee for all dogs is being proposed to be increased from $6.50 to $10. Lifetime fees would be raised from $31.50 to $49. Senior citizens and others with disabilities will continue to get a small discount with a proposed increase from $4.50 to $7 for an annual license and $33 for a lifetime license, Power said.
Officials also would move the age at which a canine is required to be licensed from 3 months to 8 weeks. The proposal and dire situation were announced last week.
"Our ask is that we please use the voices that we have to advocate for the fee increase," Redding said. "We need everybody's voice to say this is important public policy."
The amounts haven't been raised in 25 years. In 2020, the department had to use taxpayer funds for the first time to enforce the state's dog laws. The bureau monitors breeding kennels and boarding facilities, manages the state's dangerous dog registry, oversees licensing and state dog wardens, reimburses shelters for housing strays, and investigates puppy mills and disease outbreaks at kennels and shelters.
Dog warden positions are going unfilled because of the lack of funding. Annual canvassing in local communities for dog licenses has been cut back since 2019. Officials estimate about half of the state's dogs are licensed, which can help a lost animal be returned to its owner.
Since 1997, there has been a 23% decrease in dog wardens while the number of licensed kennels has increased by 19%, Redding said.
"It is time to act," he said. "We have crossed that threshold ... and now we find ourselves in crisis."
There are 45 dog wardens in the state. The bureau collects an average of $6.1 million in dog license fees annually, which is about 87% of the total revenue. In 2020, that amount shrank to $5.3 million because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Kennel inspections allow dog wardens to be the first line of defense for the dogs who live there," Redding said.
He warned that illegal kennels will pop up and canines could suffer if the proposal isn't passed.
Dog warden Supervisor Megan Horst agreed. She works in the state's southeastern region.
"For these dogs, the dog warden is the only link to freedom from abuse and neglect," she said. "The status quo is not enough."
State police Cpl. Mike Spada, an animal cruelty officer, and Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement and shelter services with the Pennsylvania SPCA, highlighted the way their agencies work in tandem with dog wardens.
Wilson said 12 kennels were shut down in 2019 because of the combined efforts of dog wardens and her agency.
"These wardens are necessary," she said. "This is what the citizens of Pennsylvania expect from their Legislature."
Spada said dog wardens can provide information needed for a search warrant and help find places to house stray canines.
"Having that resource available ... helps us make sure that dogs that do become victims have a voice," he said.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, email@example.com or via Twitter .