The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 18, 2013

State licensing fee straining budgets of animal shelters

Shelter operator: ‘This is wrong’

JOPLIN, Mo. — Missouri animal shelters lost a legal challenge to state licensing requirements last week when the Missouri Supreme Court allowed an annual charge of up to $2,500 to remain in place.

The directors of two Southwest Missouri shelters say the licensing fees put a strain on the nonprofit organizations’ already stressed budgets and divert resources away from homeless cats and dogs.

“That $2,500 can buy a lot of dog food and a lot of cat food and a lot of vaccines, and we just have to give it to the state,” said Glenda Erwin, director of the Carthage Humane Society.

The state Supreme Court case rested largely on technical grounds. Animal shelters had claimed that a 2011 law raising the fees should be invalidated because of procedural flaws in the way the Missouri Legislature passed a 2010 law that allowed fees previously charged to animal breeders to also be levied on shelters.

The Supreme Court rejected that chain-reaction argument. Instead, the court said the challenge to the 2010 law was moot because lawmakers had repealed it while passing a new version the next year.

The lawsuit had been brought by the Humane Society of the United States and two nonprofit organizations, Dogwood Animal Shelter Inc. in Osage Beach and Stray Rescue of St. Louis Inc.

Local shelter directors say the fees are a burden on their budgets, but with the court ruling, they now have no choice but to pay.

Erwin said the Carthage shelter, which currently houses about 160 animals, used to pay an annual fee of less than $500. Budgeting for a $2,500 payment instead has caused shelter officials to trim their expenses in other areas.

“When we have to fill out the form at the end of December and write a check for $2,500, it’s a huge expense,” she said. “But it’s necessary. We have to have a license. They kind of have us over a barrel.”

The Joplin Humane Society previously paid an annual fee of $150 for its shelter license, according to director Lysa Boston. The shelter currently houses about 350 animals, and it has been averaging between 750 and 850 animals coming in per month, she said.

“When it started — we’ve paid the $2,500 twice now — we were just shocked,” she said. “We thought, ‘This is wrong. It just can’t be right.’”

In addition to the higher licensing fee, other costs such as electric bills and medicine or vaccination costs also have increased, Boston said. Yet the standards of operation and the care required by the animals has remained the same.

“We can’t cut certain things, and we certainly wouldn’t want to, but we’re in a predicament,” she said. “Where else do we cut to make up for that shortfall?”

The animal groups behind the lawsuit claimed that the 2010 law subjecting shelters to state licensing fees violated a provision in the state constitution that prohibits lawmakers from changing a bill’s original purpose. As introduced, the 2010 bill dealt with state licensing for people who use explosive devices. The final version was expanded to include sections related to animals and agriculture.

The lawsuit contended that the 2010 law served as a basis for further changes in 2011, when a bill raised the maximum licensing fee from $500 to $2,500 for commercial breeders, kennels and animal shelters.

The dispute over animal shelters is a byproduct of Missouri’s efforts to regulate the dog-breeding industry. Legislators passed a measure expanding licensing fees in May 2010 in advance of a November 2010 ballot initiative pushed by the Humane Society that toughened requirements for commercial dog breeders.

After voters adopted Proposition B, legislators in 2011 repealed key parts of it and approved their own new regulations as part of a compromise with Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration.

Since the 2011 bill was signed into law, there have been a few attempts by lawmakers to change it out of consideration for the shelters, said state Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho. Most recently, a 2013 bill sponsored by a representative from Independence sought to exempt animal shelters from the payment of licensing fees, but it failed to make it out of the House during the legislative session.

“That’s still in consideration,” Reiboldt, chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture Policy, said of the motion to exempt shelters from paying those fees.

Amanda Good, the Missouri director for the Humane Society of the United States, said at least two animal rescue organizations have closed rather than pay the licensing fees.

“We’re talking about nonprofit organizations. We’re taxing them like they’re corporations or commercial businesses. We don’t do this for homeless shelters” for people, Good said. “I feel like this is payback for the shelters and rescues supporting Proposition B in 2010.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.

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