Harford animal control law changed in preparation for shift to Sheriff's Office

The Harford County Sheriff's Office will now oversee animal control

Fines for failing to get a license for your dog, or letting it run loose will be going up later this summer in Harford County, as the role of dog catcher shifts to the Sheriff's Office.

The Harford County Council authorized statutory changes last week that will facilitate County Executive Barry Glassman's plan to move animal control responsibilities to the Sheriff's Office from the Harford County Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits.

The council voted unanimously at its May 12 legislative session to approve a series of amendments to the animal control law that will be needed as the Sheriff's Office takes over those functions.

Among the changes are the higher civil fines for violations such as failing to get a dog license or failing to keep a dog under the owner's control.

The penalties will increase from $20 to $30 for a first offense, from $40 to $100 for a second offense and from $75 to $150 for a third or any subsequent offense.

"The intent is to send a message here that it's very important to license your dog," Cindy Mumby, county government spokesperson, said.

According to a fiscal impact note prepared by the county auditor, Harford issued approximately $9,000 in animal control citations in the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, most of them were for first offenses. Using prior years' violations experience, civil fine revenue is projected to increase approximately $6,800 annually.

A violation of the law's regulations on dogs running loose, animal abuse or pet shop standards can still be treated as a criminal misdemeanor with penalties that include a fine from $25 to $1,000 and jail up to 90 days, or both, for each offense. But, no one will go to jail in the future for failing to get a dog license, an administration official told council members earlier this month.

The council also repealed the law last week that established an animal control advisory commission that was created to hear "formal complaints" about animals and appeals of denials by the county of pet shop or kennel licenses. The panel consisted of the county health officer, humane society director, a veterinarian and four citizens appointed by the county executive.

Glassman signed an executive order April 2 that formally transfers animal control operations and its employees to the Sheriff's Office. The order will take effect early next month.

The shift would make the Sheriff's Office, traditionally focused on humans, in charge of enforcing laws about pet vaccinations and dogs running loose, nuisance animals and abuse of animals by humans, as well as handling suspected rabies cases involving dogs, other pets and wild animals.

The legislative changes approved by the council last week also include amendments that eliminate language about dog license renewals issued after 45 days from the date of expiration being subject to a 50 percent surcharge and extending dog licenses set to expire on July 1, 2014, to Sept. 1, 2014 at no charge to the license holder. The latter provision is needed so the existing licenses conform to the amended law, which will take effect in mid- to late July.

Another amendment makes a dog's license valid through the expiration date of its rabies vaccination, instead of the license being issued for a year.

The latter change aligns the cycle of vaccination renewal, typically three years, with license renewal, an amendment put forth by Councilman Joe Woods, Mumby said.

In the current fiscal year that began July 1, Harford has issued 7,313 licenses for individual dogs and nine kennel licenses for six or more dogs, Mumby said.

Comparisons with previous years are difficult, she said, because from 2009 to until early 2014, the county sold dog licenses for one, two or three years, before switching back to an annual license. During those years, she said, there were 10,000 dogs licensed on average.

Moving animal control out of the county administration's sphere of influence means it will no longer have to deal directly with testy situations like neighbor-against-neighbor complaints, animal cruelty cases and high-profile hoarding incidents.

Shifting those responsibilities to the Sheriff's Office did not bring any opposition during a May 5 council public hearing on the legislation. AZ handful of animal control advocates did, however, express other concerns they said weren't being addressed by the proposed changes in the law.

Jean Salvatore, of Bel Air, questioned why anyone other than a licensed veterinarian should decide that a dog should be euthanized because it is considered vicious.

The amended law states: "When, in the judgment of the Sheriff, the Director of the Humane Society of Harford County, Inc., or their designees or a duly licensed veterinarian, an animal should be destroyed for humane reasons or because of its vicious and dangerous propensities, the animal may be destroyed immediately without regard to any restriction or holding period otherwise established herein."

Salvatore said only a veterinarian should have the final say on putting down an animal in such circumstances.

"It's really important for animal welfare," she said.

The law also states: "It shall be the duty of the Humane Society of Harford County, Inc., or its agent to keep or cause to be kept accurate and detailed records of impoundment and disposition of all animals coming under their control. These records shall be maintained at the Humane Society of Harford County, Inc."

Previously, the law stated that licenses, permits and inspections and the Humane Society were jointly responsible for keeping such records. Speaking during the public hearing, Adam Wysocki, of the group No Kill Harford, said the Sheriff's Office should be required to keep such records and to post them on its website.

According to the Sheriff's Office's proposed budget for FY 2016, there will be seven animal control enforcement positions at a combined salary and benefits cost of $468,726. That's one fewer than in the current budget, after a position was eliminated following a retirement.

Staff member Allan Vought contributed to this article.

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