Pooch Count Tradition Ready For Rebirth

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Dalmatian_dogA few North Hempstead officials got really lucky heading into New Year’s Eve. Newsday ran a strange story about the possibility of a door-to-door town “dog census” to make owners aware that their pets need to be licensed and to put the paperwork into their hands. Doggies make good holiday copy, especially on a traditional slow news day, and the Associated Press slightly repackaged the story for its wire service. Very quickly, variations on “Long Island Town Weighs Door-to-Door Dog Census” was picked up by local television stations and by newspaper sites along the East Coast.

Good for them at town hall. Fine with me that they’re thinking about this and that they want to tell the public. What is strange, and frustrating, is that the original story was a wild miss in context (suggesting this was “a new approach” that had “over the years been proposed”) and every daily media operation down the line just served it up.

Dog censuses were annual events in every town on Long Island, mandated by New York State law until 1980. Scores and possibly hundreds of New York’s 932 town governments are further down this road than North Hempstead, having publicly discussed or actually reinstated a dog census since the state dropped out of the dog license business in 2010.

Whenever a decision is made to reduce government spending, the worst and laziest way to do it is to mandate across-the-board reductions.

Inevitably, programs that work well get lumped in with those that don’t, and long-term consequences don’t matter as much as finding dollars that won’t be missed right now, today. Near the end of Governor David Paterson’s term, the state dog licensing program and its $325,000 a year cost was thrown out of the lifeboat. On Jan. 1, 2011, the state was out of the dog license business, which was always a state program administered by towns, cities and villages.

The requirement for licensing remained on the books, but local governments were on their own. The state would provide a Municipal Dog Licensing Tool Kit to help with the transition. The kit included a list of private vendors who could provide dog tags and create license databases.

Local governments and the state always shared in dog licensing fees. Since 1978, the formula had been that the local municipality that sold the license received 53 percent (plus an optional additional fee), the county received 30 percent and the state kept 17 percent. Now the municipality is responsible for issuing, renewing and keeping track of dog tags, but they get to set and keep the fees.

Before the change, the county share was earmarked for dog spaying and neutering, and animal cruelty investigations. Part of the state share went to the state’s College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell for important research into dog diseases that can affect humans, and new methods of dog contraception. Those programs no longer have a reliable revenue stream.

The state revoked the annual dog census mandate in 1980 (long story), but some localities in Nassau County continued to do periodic dog censuses. Hempstead did townwide mailings. North Hempstead’s animal control officers went door-to-door, until that division was gutted as part of early-1990s austerity. As budgets tightened, most New York towns gave it up and dog licenses issued typically dropped by half within a few years. That’s a problem, because the license program greatly encourages vaccinations, neutering and identification that helps keep dogs safe and stray populations under control.

The new dog census programs are all over the place. Some are done door-to-door, some by mailed affidavit, some by part-time hires, some by local police. Tag fees and the penalties are also inconsistent. Unless someone can step in and identify the best practices, it could be a huge waste as the wheel keeps getting reinvented a thousand times.

Michael Miller has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park. Email him at mmillercolumn@gmail.com

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