JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers have moved to reduce state licensing fees for animal shelters and commercial breeders as nerves remain raw following recent battles over the dog-breeding industry.
The Missouri House approved legislation last week that eventually would exempt animal shelters from the fees while reducing the maximum charges that commercial breeders pay for licenses from the state Department of Agriculture. Shelters lost an exemption from fees under a law approved in 2010, and the license charges for shelters, commercial breeders, kennels and others was increased last year from a maximum of $500 up to $2,500. Operators also pay a $25 fee to cover state efforts to crack down on unlicensed facilities.
Humane groups contend not-for-profit animal shelters should not be required to pay the fees because their purpose is to help the community and not earn money. One organization likened the charges to levying a hotel tax on homeless shelters. But opponents of exempting shelters from the fees argue that all facilities should pay their fair share toward Missouri's animal regulation efforts.
"The humane societies and shelters are not profiting from caring for these animals. They're doing this as an act of love for the animals and as a service for their community," said Bob Baker, the executive director for the Missouri Alliance for Animal Legislation. "It would be like them saying you go in and inspect homeless shelters to make sure that they're providing proper care for the people and that they don't violate fire codes, but you don't go and tax them for those inspections."
On the other hand, reviewing the conditions at animal shelters and correcting problems when they are found costs money and others should not be required to pick up the tab, said Karen Strange, the president of the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners. Strange said the organization has suggested a more limited exemption from fees for small, rural shelters that adopt less than 50 dogs per year.
Strange said everyone should pay their fair share and that animal shelters would not be happy if they were asked to cover the costs for commercial breeders.
"We believe that people adopting animals should be willing to pay an extra dollar per animal to ensure they have proper care," Strange said.
Missouri agriculture officials reported collecting more than $534,000 this year from facilities covered by the state's animal care program, which includes commercial breeders, shelters, boarding kennels, pet sitters and others. The Agriculture Department estimates the proposed changes for the fees would cost about $84,000 — nearly all in lost fees paid by animal shelters. Officials said decreasing the maximum licensing fees paid by commercial breeders to $1,000 would cost state government about $81.
The House legislation dealing with licensing charges was approved 98-34, and it now has moved to the state Senate. Under the measure, animal shelters would be exempt from the fees starting in 2014, and state agricultural officials could decide to excuse shelters before then. Along with the fee changes, the measure would allow the agriculture director to deny or revoke the licenses for animal shelters that officials determine excessively profit from animal adoptions or sales.
Tension over Missouri's dog policies remains after voters approved a ballot measure in 2010 to create new rules for the breeding industry, including a limit of 50 breeding dogs and additional care requirements for the animals. The measure passed with about 52 percent of the vote with supporters in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas outweighing opponents in rural areas.
Before the new rules could take effect, state lawmakers last year approved legislation to replace much of the voter-approved law and then implemented an agreement between the state's animal welfare and agriculture groups.