Proposed changes to Crestwood animal code raise dander of some pet owners

Residents say proposed code violates constitutional rights

By BURKE WASSON

An amendment that would raise pet-license fees and give right-of-entry authority that some residents call excessive to the Crestwood Animal Control Officer was tabled last week by the city’s Board of Aldermen.

The proposed amendment to the city’s animal-control code was delayed for the purpose of further review, which Mayor Roy Robinson suggested be accomplished through a town-hall meeting in early 2007.

Crestwood aldermen voted 6-2 last week to table the issue. Ward 2 Alderman Jim Kelleher and Ward 4 Alderman Steve Nieder were opposed.

Under the proposed amendment, license fees for cats and dogs would increase. Annual tag fees would jump from $2 to $5, annual fees for non-commercial kennel and cattery licenses would rise from $10 to $150 and annual fees for commercial kennel and cattery licenses would go from $50 to $250. Under the city’s animal-control code, a kennel or cattery is defined as any residence that has four or more dogs and cats.

In addition, sportsman’s permits would increase from $10 to $50 and rescue organizations would now be re-quired to pay $150 for a permit.

Animal Control Officer Suzie Sutton told residents at the Board of Aldermen’s Nov. 28 meeting that the need for fee increases is simply to keep up with the necessities that come from the amount of time spent on animal control.

“All we’re trying to do is cover the time that I spent,” Sutton said. “And believe me, there’s an extraordinary amount of time spent in first issuing these permits and receiving the applications … Unfortunately, although we have many very good special-kennel permit holders at this time, we had a few that had increased their numbers unbeknownst to us for some period of time until we heard about it from the neighbors. One of those people who had what we thought were 15 animals, we found were 50 animals. So it takes a great amount of time.”

But numerous residents at that meeting criticized the proposed amendment for being either unfair to responsible pet owners or infringing on residents’ rights.

“I just don’t understand wanting to punish every pet owner in the city for a couple people that are a problem,” Mary Schultz said. “And I think this is onerous and I’m upset about it.”

“I can understand why you’re upset,” Robinson responded. “I was asked a lot of questions about this and I told them what I didn’t like about it. I asked the city attorney whether or not these fees increased violated the Hancock Amendment. They state that you can increase them as long as you can justify the cost through what the city has to do to monitor and take care of these kennels and everything.”

“What you’re going to do by increasing the fees is that more people just won’t buy the dog tags,” Schultz said.

“Well, that is a problem,” Robinson said. “You’re probably correct. And they’ll do it behind our backs.”

“That’s right,” Schultz said. “You make it onerous for the owners, and they’re just not going to comply with it. And I think it’s wrong to treat the citizens this way.”

Resident Tim Anderson also addressed the issue of residents’ rights to the board.

He referred to a section of the proposed animal-control code amendment that states: “The Animal Control Officer or those acting in his behalf shall have the right of entry onto any lots or lands and the right of entry to any property or premises for the purpose of collecting any dog, cat, or other animal, which is subject to impoundment due to the animal being unattended and causing a disturbance that is excessive, continuous or endangers the animal.”

Anderson said he believes that this section gives animal-control officers in Crestwood an unconstitutional authority.

“There are certain provisions in here which allow the animal-control officer to go on to the private property,” Anderson said. “It would seem to me that some of that might run afoul of some of the rights people have with respect to the privacy of their property. And the officer is acting in violation of those constitutional rights.

“If the animal is inside a house, how are you going to determine if the dog is unattended unless you go into the house? So it seems to me you’re simply asking for the officer to have an authority that police officers wouldn’t have. They would be able to go just at any whim and go into somebody’s house.”

Anderson also raised concerns about forcing residents to pay for their pets to be neutered or spayed by making it illegal not to do so by the time the pet is 6 months old.

He also addressed the board on a conflict between one section of the proposed amendment that prevents pet owners from tying their pets and another section that requires them to be secured if they are indoors or outdoors on the owner’s property.

“I don’t know how you can secure an animal if you can’t tie it up or otherwise,” Anderson said. “So other than mandating that pet owners have a fence in the city, I don’t know how you can harmonize those two provisions. I think if you take those two provisions in context, I think what you’re requiring is that if anyone has a dog and lets it outside, you’re going to have to have the dog fenced in because you can’t tie the dog or secure it otherwise.”

Nieder, who also serves as the aldermanic representative on the Animal Control Board, told residents critical of the amendment that the fee increases are warranted and that they already had an opportunity to provide input during the Animal Control Board’s meetings.

“This is a service that the community gives to the citizens and it does cost us money,” Nieder said. “In fact, quite a bit of money … The costs of taking care of this service were very carefully considered at at least three meetings that I attended as a liaison. They were very carefully compared to other communities in our surrounding area. And, in fact, in many cases, the cost for individual services or fees that we’re talking about are less than the surrounding communities. So we’re not trying to penalize you or any specific person at all. In addition, notification for the last five meetings that I’m aware of was posted on the (city) Web site and was posted on the outside of this door here (Crestwood Government Center). So there was plenty of time for any type of input from the people at that time, and we would have gladly taken your suggestions. Again, we have to carefully consider as a board the cost of giving the service. And those fees that we asked for, as far as I can tell, are just barely going to cover the cost to the city to go ahead and keep that kennel running without improving it, modifying it or anything else.”

But resident Marilyn Smith said the new fees are too high. While she is not opposed to the $3 annual increase in pet-tag fees, she believes it is unfair that she would pay $150 per year for her four cats under the new code after previously paying $10 annually for those same pets.

“I feel Crestwood is making it hard on residents,” Smith said. “And I feel they’re actually being penalized for being kind to animals. And, of course, my question was the Hancock Amendment, too, because it says that a raise in fees prohibits a local tax or fee increases without popular vote.”

Robinson said after conferring with City Attorney Robert Golterman, that the amendment does not violate the Hancock Amendment because the fee increases can be justified.

At the same time, the mayor said he believes some of the fees are too high and he is in favor of tabling the issue and has asked the Animal Control Board to further study it.

“I think we should take another look at this,” he said. “I think if somebody has an additional cat which is not in a kennel and that there’s some kind of reasonable cost that we know that you’re there, that you have the extra one (pet). I’m with you guys. I’m a pet lover and I know the people who worked on this are pet lovers, too. But I think these fees are too high. And I’ve had problems with it ever since I read it.”