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City officials raise fees for pet licenses, work to boost number of licensed animals

As the front door of the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control center opened and a gust of warm early-September air made its way inside, a little black dog jumped up and peered over the edge of the glass window separating his cage from the building's lobby.

Like almost all of the other dogs at the center, his well-groomed appearance seems to suggest that he belongs to someone who cares for him. But without any identification or a license on file with the city, he ended up in the holding area of the Animal Care and Control center without an easy way to reunite him with his owner.

The task would have been much easier if the dog had been licensed, something Animal Care and Control officials have been trying to prompt more pet owners in the city to do. But at the same time as city officials work to increase the abysmally low number of pets in the city that are licensed, they agreed in August to double the price of annual pet licenses. The move is part of an ongoing review of pet-related ordinances and fees that are, in part, designed to boost the annual revenue generated by Animal Care and Control. The ordinance reviews have also led to other changes, which include refining the city's dangerous-animal policy and eliminating a partial reimbursement program for veterinarians who spay and neuter pets adopted from the shelter.

But the change that will likely affect the most pet owners in the city is the increase in the annual license fees for dogs and cats, which will go from $15 for sterilized pets and $30 for non-sterilized pets to $30 for sterilized pets and $50 for non-sterilized pets. That means for a law-abiding citizen who has a dog and two cats - all spayed and neutered - the cost to license their pets would be $90 per year. Minneapolis hasn't increased its fees since 2002, according to a city staff report. City law requires cats and dogs to wear a clearly visible license - basically, an identification tag bearing a number - on a collar at all times.

City officials said they are working to promote the licensing of cats and dogs. Part of that effort has resulted in a new &#8220lifetime license” that covers pets for the duration of their lives with a one-time fee. Until the end of the year, pet owners will be able to get a lifetime license for sterilized and microchipped dogs and cats for $100. The offer is an attempt to encourage pet owners - especially those with younger dogs and cats - to license their pets. As of Jan. 1, 2007, that lifetime license will increase to $200.

&#8220We really want to have a higher compliance rate,” said Lori Olson, the deputy director of the city's Environment Management and Safety department. &#8220We're trying to encourage people who think it's a pain to license their pets each year to do the lifetime license.”

While it is difficult to track the total number of pets in the city, officials at Animal Care and Control use a national formula to determine that less than 1 percent of cats and just shy of 9 percent of dogs in the city are licensed. Of the estimated 107,727 dogs in the city, 9,669 are licensed. Of the estimated 116,014 cats in the city, 1,046 are licensed.

And while it may seem pricey to license a pet, it can be equally as pricey not to file that paperwork. Owners with an unlicensed pet can be tagged with a $25 fine each time they're caught. In addition to approving the increase in license fees in August, the City Council also approved increasing the fine for pet owners who agreed to spay or neuter their pet when they adopted it, but then never did so, from $100 to $200.

In addition to avoiding fines, officials with Animal Care and Control note that there are other reasons for Minneapolis pet owners to license their dogs and cats. Pet owners who have their cats and dogs licensed are given an identification tag with a number on it. That number is linked in the city's registration system with the dog or cat's record and its home address, making the pet easy to return if it becomes lost.

That type of information would have been helpful for the little black dog peering at visitors through the window at Animal Care and Control. City officials note that if this dog - or any of the many others sharing his digs at the Animal Care and Control center, including a pair of cattle dog puppies and an expensive breed of hunting dog called a Weimaraner - had been licensed, they likely would be back with their owners. Tom Doty, the field services manager at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control, estimates that just 4 to 5 percent of dogs impounded are licensed.

&#8220We typically don't impound licensed pets because we can return them to their owners in the field,” Doty said.

Animal Care and Control officers can also return lost pets who have a form of identification on their collar other than a Minneapolis license, but upon their return, the owners are fined for not having their pets licensed.

Doty acknowledged that there is a concern that increasing the fees for pet licenses could discourage some residents from licensing their pets and make it difficult for others to afford to comply with the law, a point that City Councilmembers also briefly touched on before passing the ordinance changes. But he also pointed out that the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control Center provides an essential service to the city, and that service isn't free.

&#8220There's always a concern [about cost] when you're putting stuff like this together. But we had to look at what's the service we provide and who should bear the brunt of the cost of that service?” Doty said, adding the pet licenses are somewhat of a &#8220user fee” for city residents who choose to have pets.

Marilyn Fisher, the manager of shelter operations at Animal Care and Control, also pointed out that the fees are an essential part of supporting the program. License fees are the primary source of revenue for the Animal Care and Control program, according to the city report. Doty said the program receives about $174,000 a year from regular licensing sales. The 2005 operating budget for Animal Care & Control was $1.8 million, with total revenue - which includes other fees for pet recovery and adoption as well as off-leash fines - accounting for $312,945. The proposed license increase is expected to generate an estimated $360,000 in revenue in 2007.

The city also requires that rabbits and ferrets are licensed, but those fees will not change - at least for now. The price of those licenses are $15 for sterilized and $25 for nonsterilized rabbits and ferrets. Olson said the cost of those licenses could be subject to an increase in 2007.

Other pet-related ordinance changes

The City Council approved other changes as well, including the elimination of a program that partially reimbursed veterinarians and pet owners when a dog or cat adopted from the shelter was spayed or neutered. Anyone who adopted a pet from an animal shelter used to pay a $30 sterilization deposit and was given a list of more than 150 veterinarians who offered a free initial exam. If the pet owner chose to have his or her dog or cat spayed or neutered by one of those veterinarians, Animal Care & Control would mail a $15 reimbursement of the deposit to that veterinarian upon receipt of documentation that the animal was sterilized. If the owner took that same pet to a veterinarian not participating in the city's program, the owner would receive the $15 reimbursement. Animal Care & Control kept the other half of the deposit to cover administrative costs, but staff determined that the city was spending more than that on processing the refund requests and the refund wasn't significantly defraying the costs of sterilization. Staff members do not believe the elimination of the program will have an impact on the number of animals who are sterilized, according to the city report.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] and 436-4373.