Polk County to put ‘teeth’ in animal control; citation form approved

Published 5:05 pm Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kelly was one of a few people to share comments Monday night with Polk County commissioners who were considering enforcement of the county&squo;s animal control ordinance. After hearing the comments, commissioners approved a citation form that will give the county&squo;s animal control office an essential tool for enforcement.

Commissioners also indicated they are willing to take further steps to address a growing problem of stray dogs. They agreed to create an ad hoc committee that will tailor the county&squo;s existing animal control ordinance to better fit Polk County.

For instance, the ordinance, modeled after one apparently used by a larger government jurisdiction, refers to the county&squo;s animal shelter, although the county doesn&squo;t have a shelter. The county works with Foothills Humane Society (FHS), which has the only shelter in the county, but no mention is made of FHS in the county&squo;s&bsp; ordinance.

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The ordinance also refers to a director of animal control, although the county had never officially designated anyone for that position until Monday. Commissioners agreed to put Polk County Sheriff Donald Hill, who oversees animal control, in that position.

They also agreed to create a five-member Polk County Animal Control Board of Adjustment, which will hear appeals related to citations issued under the ordinance. The ordinance refers to the board, even though one does not exist.

Commissioners said they plan to advertise for members to the board of adjustment, and they also will consider soon appointments to the ad hoc committee that will review the ordinance. They indicated the committee should include a county commissioner, the county manager, the animal control officer and at least one member of FHS.

Polk County has had an animal control ordinance in effect since 2004. However, county officials say animal control has never been given the resources needed for enforcement.

Polk animal control officer Michael Herman urged commissioners to give him the tools he needs for the job. Without them, he said, he is forced to return repeatedly to deal with the same dogs and owners.

&dquo;I tell them the law, but then I come back next week because there&squo;s nothing I can do about it,&dquo; said Herman.

Now that the county has approved a citation form, the animal control office plans to begin issuing warning citations and then proceed to citations that carry progressively higher fines for each violation. Currently, the ordinance lists three levels of violations.

Unsightly litter or odors, property damage caused by an animal, animals at large and failure to dispose of a dead animal are among the Level I offenses.

Level II offenses include animal bite, animal frequently at large, failure to confine a dog in heat, unsafe confinement of an animal in a vehicle and intentionally striking an animal with a vehicle, among other offenses.

Level III offenses include keeping a dangerous animal, maintaining a diseased animal, cruelty to animals, abandoning an animal, keeping a wild or exotic animal and failure to comply with a dangerous dog order, among others.

Commissioner Tommy Melton initially questioned whether the county should move forward right away with plans to issue citations and suggested first holding a public hearing. After hearing comments from a few citizens Monday, he said he heard enough to understand the magnitude of the problem.

&dquo;I think this issue is greater than we realize,&dquo; he said. &dquo;We don&squo;t need to bury a child&ellip; I want to make sure we put the teeth in the ordinance.&dquo;

A Pea Ridge resident explained how stray dogs, including Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, routinely roam up and down the road and sometimes on his property. Although the dogs have never attacked, he said he is concerned about the safety of his three young children.

Animal control officer Herman said the problem has worsened since the economy deteriorated. The number of strays has increased and they have now begun forming packs, he said.

&dquo;I&squo;m picking up twice as many animals and I&squo;m not talking just mutts. It&squo;s high end dogs. People can&squo;t afford to feed them anymore,&dquo; said Herman.

He added that nearly every day there he responds to calls about dogs chasing or killing livestock, and often he receives multiple calls from several areas of the county at once.

Herman said he had 10 animal-at-large calls in two hours last Friday that took him from Saluda to Tryon to Green Creek and other areas of the county.

So far this year he has responded to a total of about 1,000 calls.

County officials noted animal control will face an issue with finding sufficient shelter space if it begins impounding dogs.

FHS President Robert Then&bsp; said his organization gives its full support to the animal control officer, but he noted that the FHS shelter does not have room and would be overburdened if animal control enforcement results in many impounded dogs.

Commissioner Melton said the county may need to look at funding a facility that could meet the county&squo;s needs.

Commissioner Warren Watson said the actions taken Monday were a good first step and the county board will soon revisit the issue.