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The Hidden Life of Connecticut Dog Licenses

The Hidden Life of Connecticut Dog Licenses

Source: Marc E. Fitch, Connecticut Inside Investigator

In June of this year, the Town of Windham held its first “Best Dog” drawing for dog owners coming to town hall to register and license their dogs. The winner – a Labrador mix named Damian – was selected by pulling a name out of a hat. 

Damian was a rescue, of sorts: his previous owner had passed away and a friend took over caring for him. As the winner, Damian received the first dog license and a basket of treats donated by local merchants.

The month-long event was held in conjunction between the Town Clerk’s Office and Windham’s new Senior Center and Community Center. Although the Best Dog drawing was random, local seniors jumped on the bandwagon and created an impromptu “Cutest Dog” selection, based on the photos dog owners submitted of their pups. That one went to a German Shephard named Tarzan.

“In a town you’re always looking for activities that will be enjoyed by a wide group of people and one that is not going to be contested or divisive,” said Windham Town Clerk Patty Spruance. “It became a fun activity that would seem to benefit folks. You look for opportunities to celebrate and have these little activities. It’s not costly, the prizes were donated by local merchants. It was an all-around feel-good event.”

Town clerks have times during the year that are busier than others and June is one of them, according to Kate Wall, town clerk for the Town of Berlin and president of the Connecticut Town Clerks Association.

“A lot of our responsibilities are cyclical. It’s very busy in our office in October. January for appointments of boards and commissions and new municipal officers,” Wall said. “June is historically a very busy time for town clerks with dog licenses and hopefully we’ve been through our budget referendum already.”

But, she says, it’s also a fun time to be a town clerk, as busy as they may be.

“The dog owners coming in are usually happy. They’re not yelling at us and that’s a great thing,” Wall said. “A lot of towns do contests, they may have top dog, cutest dog, whatever the case may be, so they engage the community in the opportunity to license their dog as part of education but also, it’s a community activity. Out of all the things we do, at least it’s a thing that’s kind of fun.”

But that busy time of year, also presents some concerns for other town officials, namely because the municipality issuing the dog licenses keeps very little of fees, which range from $8 for a spayed or neutered pet to $19 for an unfixed dog. 

In fact, the town clerk’s office only keeps one dollar of that fee, and the rest is placed in a special municipal dog fund, which then transfers 50 percent of the fees to the state’s Department of Agriculture, or 40 percent of the funds if the town has conducted a survey of unlicensed dogs. The remainder of the money supports the town’s local animal control officer.

In the end, the town ends up spending more money on staff, staff time, paperwork and postage issuing dog licenses than the town is allowed to keep, making it a net loss for the municipality.

“We make nothing on this, we don’t make any money, we don’t break even, we don’t cover costs,” said Harwinton First Selectman Michael Criss. “We’re doing the states bidding and they’re reaping all the rewards with no money back to us, not even in a grant format to say listen we’ll do a cost-share grant program if you want to invest the money into your animal control facilities, if you want to invest into your animal control officers, vehicles, uniforms, all that stuff. That’s really how the money should be spent, to cut costs to taxpayers and to utilize that money to invest in animal control programs in those communities.”

But there is movement afoot regarding dog licensing in Connecticut. A working group has been established by the Connecticut legislature under the purview of the Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of a statewide online dog licensing system, similar to online portals for hunting and fishing permits. 

The working group, which consists of municipal organizations, town clerks and any other person or organization deemed necessary held its first meeting on June 16, 2022.

And while an online system would appear to make sense and perhaps save towns some money on administration, some remain skeptical as to whether an online licensing would increase dog licensing, save money, or really change anything at all.

According to a budget presentation by the Watertown town clerk, the Town Clerk’s Office spends 5 percent of its time annually on issuing dog licenses, adding that “June is ‘Clerk Comfortable Shoes Month’ – Busy on our feet!”

According to the presentation, clerks order and stock tags, paper, envelopes; print and mail reminders and licenses to dog owners, verify rabies vaccines and do pet food collection for the local food bank, all while licensing an “average of 1,400 – 1,500 dogs per year.” In 2021, the town clerk’s office kept $1,458.50 in dog licensing fees.

Based on the Town Clerk budget for 2022 and the 5 percent time figure referenced in the budget presentation, Watertown would expend $11,488.20 in work time just administering the licenses. It’s not big money by any government standard, of course, but for some town managers, little things can add up.

“We always get accused of ‘you just want to keep raising taxes,’” said John Elsesser, town manager for Coventry. “We’re the victims of 1930s thinking. This dog licensing process set up by the state may have made sense then, but they haven’t kept up with the cost of dogs for their own purposes.”

“There’s just a whole bunch of these little things. We’re stuck in a rut and until we can change our mind-set, we’re not going to become efficient,” Elsesser said. “How about fixing a bunch of small things that are doable? Property tax reform is a lot harder of a lift.”

Betsy Gara, executive director for the Council of Small Towns (COST), said the organization supports the modernization of dog licensing to “reduce costs and improve efficiency.”

“Unfortunately, towns lose money on every dog tag issued, given staff and processing costs,” Gara wrote in an email. “Dog licensing fees, which have not been increased since 2003, should be updated to reflect the true costs incurred by municipalities. There are concerns, however, that increasing fees will discourage more dog owners from licensing their pets, which is a problem for some towns.”

“We’ve had some concerns over the years about fees set in statute and how they’ve often remained flat and don’t cover municipal costs,” said George Rafael, director of the Municipal Resource and Service Center of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM). “Dog licensing fees appear to be in that category.”

Both COST and CCM are part of the working group to explore a new online statewide licensing system.

“Do we make money on it? No,” said Wall, who is part of the dog license working group. “But there’s a lot of things we do in the town clerk’s office we don’t charge for. So, it’s not to make money, it’s a service to our residents.”

But the idea of raising the licensing fees would surely rub dog owners the wrong way, particularly at a time when everyone is paying more for nearly everything. An increased dog licensing fee may just seem punitive.

“There’s a lot to be worked out. Do I think the system could use improvements? Absolutely,” Criss said. “I think if the town is going to bear any type of cost, we need to get a bigger slice of the pie and I also think fees — eight dollars is pretty low. The fees haven’t been adjusted in years. With the cost of inflation and everything else that’s going on right now, with standing on the verge of an economic collapse, these fees are way too low but how much more can you ask people to pay when they’re getting hammered on used car costs this year?”

“But I think at the end of the day, to ask people to pay more, too, is a whole other problem,” Criss said. “If it’s not a huge revenue driver you have to evaluate the whole system and how effective it really is.”

On the whole, dog licensing in Connecticut has a bit of a problem. The registration and licensing is meant to ensure that dogs are vaccinated for rabies and can be returned to their owners if they become lost, but, looking at the numbers, it appears many dog owners don’t bother.

And it’s certainly not a big revenue driver for the state either. The State of Connecticut’s General Fund received $270,415 in dog licensing fees for fiscal year 2021, according to information from the State Comptroller’s Office. Really, not much when one considers how many dogs there might be in Connecticut.

The dog license fees include surcharges depending on whether or not your pet is spayed or neutered. Those surcharges, and a $45 animal adoption, fee go into a special account called the Animal Population Control Account (APCA). In 2021, the APCA received $507,407, according to the Comptroller’s Open Connecticut website. The APCA money goes to sterilizing and vaccinating animals at municipal animal impounds and for vouchers for vaccinating and sterilizing animals for low-income residents.

The vast majority of those funds — 74 percent — came from dog licenses, according to the Animal Population Control Program’s annual 2020 report to the General Assembly, which also recommended increasing the state’s surcharge to fund more sterilizations and vaccinations.

Dog license fees also help support the Department of Agriculture and its Animal Control Division, which handles large animals like horses, animal hoarding cases, kennel and pet shop inspections and providing guidance and assistance for municipal animal control officers.

The latest available data from CT Open Data, which is only for the 2015/2016 fiscal year showed a grand total of 207,837 dog licenses issued by Connecticut municipalities – a number that had been declining for several years, according to the data. 

According to a 2017 article published the Connecticut Post, the Department of Agriculture estimates only 25 percent of residents actually license their dogs, and there’s no really accurate way of finding out how many dogs are in Connecticut.

The American Veterinary Medical Association uses an estimation formula based on the number of households. Using that formula for Connecticut would mean roughly 850,000 dogs, so there are plenty of unlicensed dogs in the Nutmeg State.

Elease McConnell, animal control officer for the Town of Manchester, said Manchester has one of the highest rates of dog licensing compliance in the state and she accomplishes that through, essentially, community policing.

“We gain compliance by talking to our customers. It’s a $75 dollar fine for not licensing your dog. I would much rather have you spend all that money on vet care because that’s more important,” McConnell said. “When I community police – and I’m the only one left – I tell people ‘Do you want a ticket for $75 when you can get this done for $8?’”

Criss says he knows that many animals aren’t registered, just from going door-to-door during campaign season. 

“You’re talking about honest residents coming forward and registering their animals, there’s numerous animals out there that aren’t registered. I know that just doing door-to-door, there’s so many dogs that probably aren’t registered to the town. It’s almost comical. It’s an honor system really,” Criss said.

Patricia Kavanaugh of Watertown licenses her dogs every year through the mail and says she is happy to send in the small fee to register her dogs, some of which are rescues. She admits that an online system might be easier but also worries that some people don’t have computers. 

“That’s good if you have a computer. A lot of people might not have them, though,” Kavanaugh said, adding that she would use an online state system if there one existed. “Why not? It would save me trouble.”

But online dog licensing wouldn’t be new to many Connecticut residents.

According to Kate Wall, 38 percent of municipalities currently have their own online system for registering and licensing dogs. “I think the online process is a great additional service to our residents. We want to make sure we provide different opportunities for residents to license their dog.”

Of course, online dog licensing for municipalities sometimes means paying for additional software, something Elsesser highlighted as an additional cost for the town, and each town that chooses to do online registry has to maintain their own system, since no statewide system currently exists.

“There’s 169 ways of doing it differently,” Wall said. “It’s tough because the smaller towns have issues, and the larger towns have different issues and it’s hard to have the same thing across the different dynamics. I think the biggest thing is to make sure that our residents know, and we want to educate them. It helps everybody.”

McConnell, however, remains skeptical of whether a statewide online system would help. 

Admittedly, McConnell says she’s not a “techie,” and sees little issue in handling dog licenses the way they’ve always been done.

“If we end having to do online, my big question is are they going to mail us? Or is it going to be emailed?” McConnell said. “My mother doesn’t even have a computer in her house. I don’t know what the answer is. I understand that change needs to happen to make things easier going forward, but I can’t say what the significance is going to be and what will generate more licensed dogs.”

Elsesser believes the state should do away with annual dog licensing, arguing that rabies shots are only required once every three years, so the state could essentially make it a three-year licensing window.

“[The State] recognizes that annual licenses are a lot of work, that’s why they got rid of annual driver’s licenses,” Elsesser said. “That’s why my thought is that rabies are good for three years, get a three year license. If the vets do it, they already give you a rabies tag, let the vets take a buck or two bucks and just do it, get us out of it.”

Gara of COST also noted, “Some states allow municipalities to issue two or three-year dog licenses to help reduce processing costs.”

McConnell, however, says that municipal animal control officers would “fight tooth and nail” to prevent a three-year license, noting that rabies shots for puppies are only good for one year and if a dog owner switches veterinary clinics and loses their paperwork, the veterinarian will again only do a one-year vaccination.

“You’re going to let dog owners go through and register once every three years? People can’t even remember to get their dogs rabies vaccinated, that’s going to be a nightmare,” McConnell said.

Many dogs and cats now come micro-chipped, allowing the animal’s owner to be found if it becomes lost – a possible technological solution to licensing as a means of returning lost pets to their owners. But there’s a drawback to that as well, McConnell says.

“[The microchip] is only good if the pet owner registers it and a lot of them don’t,” McConnell said. 

For now, the dog licensing working group is just starting to figure out if and how a statewide licensing system would work for Connecticut. It is already done for other permits and, while it may not increase licensing, it could help ease some of the pressure on towns.

Criss notes that even if the system does go online, like other permits where residents can use a kiosk at their town hall, there is still a cost associated with installing and maintaining the kiosk.

“If they’re going to do an online system where everyone has to go through the state to register their animals it might work, if the state’s going to take on all the administrating fees where they issue the tags and everything,” Criss said.

“It’s a great group,” Kate Wall said. “I think the most important thing is for people to license their dogs and a lot of times people don’t realize they have to license their dogs.”

But for others, Connecticut’s moniker of being the “land of steady habits” may work best.

“So, I know that while there is talk and there is a working group for the online dog licensing, I don’t know what the ultimate goal is, and I can’t say if it’s better or worse,” McConnell said. “I know the beast in front of me and I know the beast that I know how to use and its very user friendly and its easy.”

For Windham Town Clerk Patty Spruance, however, the dog licensing contest was a great way to bring the community together and raise awareness of the need to license their dogs, but, despite the fun, there wasn’t much of an uptick in dog registrations.

“When you do those different incentives, or you make it more accessible, you don’t necessarily increase the sale of dog tags because I think it goes back to those who are going to register their dogs are going to register their dogs, and there are people who don’t,” Spruance said. “So, it really has to do a lot more with the availability of animal control officers doing an audit and going door to door as they do in some communities.”

“It’s something that we’d like to do again,” Spruance said of Windham’s dog licensing contest. “Dog licensing is generally a very upbeat time period for the residents and the clerks.”