Dog owners right to question registration fees
Fri 2 Mar 2012 by Nigel Pinkerton.

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

I don’t begrudge my neighbours their (multiple) cats, I keep bees after all.   In the interests of good neighbourhood relations I have decided that I can put up with the odd foul-smelling present left in the most inconvenient places.   But my predicament does highlight a glaring double-standard in New Zealand’s animal control laws – the legal status of small urban dog breeds 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 of this error on Campbell Live (Friday, 24 Feb) when Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse used user-pays as a comeback to opposition regarding a proposed steep hike in dog registration fees for Auckland.

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

I agree that users of a service should be the ones who pay for that service.   But the users of animal welfare services are the ratepayers.   They are the ones who don’t want roaming dogs, stray cats, or escaped zoo animals left unattended.   The vast majority of dog owners do not contribute to the issues that Auckland’s animal welfare services are dealing with.   If a dog 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 the Hutt City Council’s animal welfare or animal control services.   My wife and I own a small bichon cross, which is less of a threat to another person’s safety than many cats I’ve met.

But what if my dog escapes, runs away, or roams and has to be impounded?   Even with a fully-registered dog we would still be charged $77 to get it back ($154 for the second time it happens), plus a substance fee for every day the council has to look after it. Charging me for services I actually use is fair enough and meets the definition of user-pays.   Charging me an annual 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 the means to pay fees and fines.   Even if some of them don’t, it doesn’t justify charging the non-users of dog control services ("good" dog-owners) for the cost of dealing with the "problem" ones.

In fact, given the high fees/fines owners of errant dogs can be stung with, it is hard to see why annual fees are needed at all.   I’d like to see more transparency to know if my dog registration fee goes towards picking up road kill or euthanizing wild cats.   Clause 9 of the Dog Control Act 1996 attempts to restrict how revenue from dog registration fees is used.   But when councils use vague terms like "funding animal welfare services", I can’t help but get suspicious.

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

What needs to be done?

Local and central government needs to rethink the aims of the Dog Control Act 1996.   The act largely predates the recent popularity of designer lap-breeds and was designed to keep tabs on a population of potentially dangerous (to people and livestock) animals in our midst.   But we all know the "problem" dog owners often fly under the radar anyway, leaving the honest 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 a system of tracking them back to their owners, then we need to seriously question whether we should have registration fees at all.   In this day and age the 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 is not high among small-dog owners (myself excluded, of course) due to the perceived injustice.   Dog owners may seem like an easy target but if you are not getting compliance (at both ends of the spectrum) then registration fees serve no other purpose than revenue gathering from the honest schmucks in the middle.   Let’s be honest, it’s not a user-pays system.

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