Dog owners right to question registration fees

I’m a dog owner, and I don’t have much time for cats. Growingup, cats were for company and dogs for working on the farm, so why the dislikeof cats? They foul my lawn and garden, they drive out native birds, and I’vehad blood drawn by an angry cat on more than one occasion.

I don’t begrudge my neighbours their (multiple) cats, I keepbees after all.   In the interests of good neighbourhood relations I havedecided that I can put up with the odd foul-smelling present left in the mostinconvenient places.   But my predicament does highlight a glaring double-standardin New Zealand’s animal control laws – the legal status of small urban dogbreeds compared to their feline counterparts.

It really riles me when people misuse economic arguments,such as referring to dog registration fees as "user-pays".   I saw an example ofthis error on Campbell Live (Friday, 24 Feb) when Auckland Deputy Mayor PennyHulse used user-pays as a comeback to opposition regarding a proposed steephike in dog registration fees for Auckland.

Auckland ratepayers currently meat $5m of the $12m annualcost for "animal welfare services" in their city.   The other $7m comes from dogowners (at least the ones who register their dog).

I agree that users of a service should be the ones who payfor that service.   But the users of animal welfare services are theratepayers.   They are the ones who don’t want roaming dogs, stray cats, or escapedzoo animals left unattended.   The vast majority of dog owners do not contributeto the issues that Auckland’s animal welfare services are dealing with.   If adog owner does cause a problem – they are generally up for a range of fines.

As a dog owner in Lower Hutt I have never used theHutt City Council’s animal welfare or animal control services.   My wife and Iown a small bichon cross, which is less of a threat to another person’s safetythan many cats I’ve met.

But what if my dog escapes, runs away, or roams and has tobe impounded?   Even with a fully-registered dog we would still be charged $77to get it back ($154 for the second time it happens), plus a substance fee forevery day the council has to look after it. Charging me for services I actuallyuse is fair enough and meets the definition of user-pays.   Charging me anannual fee, just because I decided to own-up and tell the council I have a dog,is just a tax.

I’m not convinced that "problem" dog owners don’t have themeans to pay fees and fines.   Even if some of them don’t, it doesn’t justifycharging the non-users of dog control services ("good" dog-owners) for the costof dealing with the "problem" ones.

In fact, given the high fees/fines owners of errant dogs canbe stung with, it is hard to see why annual fees are needed at all.   I’d liketo see more transparency to know if my dog registration fee goes towardspicking up road kill or euthanizing wild cats.   Clause 9 of the Dog Control Act1996 attempts to restrict how revenue from dog registration fees is used.   Butwhen councils use vague terms like "funding animal welfare services", I can’thelp but get suspicious.

What about the cost of providing dog-exercise areas andother facilities?   Ether charge for entry into these (and do the same with BMXparks, children’s playgrounds etc.), or accept that dog owners are ratepayerstoo and give them the said facilities.

What needs to be done?

Local and central government needs to rethink the aims ofthe Dog Control Act 1996.   The act largely predates the recent popularity ofdesigner lap-breeds and was designed to keep tabs on a population ofpotentially dangerous (to people and livestock) animals in our midst.   But weall know the "problem" dog owners often fly under the radar anyway, leaving thehonest ones to line the council’s pockets without solving the actual issue.

If the goal is to know where all the dogs are and have asystem of tracking them back to their owners, then we need to seriouslyquestion whether we should have registration fees at all.   In this day and agethe cost of administering a records system such as the National Dog Database(NDD) should not be astronomical.

I can tell you from personal-experience that compliance isnot high among small-dog owners (myself excluded, of course) due to theperceived injustice.   Dog owners may seem like an easy target but if you arenot getting compliance (at both ends of the spectrum) then registration feesserve no other purpose than revenue gathering from the honest schmucks in themiddle.   Let’s be honest, it’s not a user-pays system.

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