Photo Caption: Sara Hartman, spokesperson for Friends of Shelter Dogs, speaks to the Athens County Commissioners Tuesday, asking to lower the licensing fees the rescue group has to pay for dogs who would otherwise be euthanized.
If Athens County forces the Friends of Shelter Dogs pay license fees for each of the dogs it rescues, the group wants to get at least a discount. During a commissioners meeting Tuesday, the group made this request while bemoaning continuing struggles with the county.
Earlier this month, the county was informed by Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson that it's legally obliged to include a license fee for any rescue dogs.
Shelter Dogs spokesperson Sara Hartman pointed out to the commissioners Tuesday that in 2003 the euthanasia rate was at 83 percent compared to 7 percent in 2011, due very much to the group's rescue efforts.
"We are exhausted by the continual roadblocks and the hassles," she said. "We're really at the end of our rope. We recognize that the commissioners have not created the latest issue we're going through right now but we are asking you to find a solution as expediently as possible."
Since May 3 when the group first started having to pay the license fees, they have spent more than $350, she said. Extrapolated over the course of a whole year, it would cost them $16,000, she said – a sum that the group simply cannot afford. The fees run $24 per dog unless it qualifies for the spayed/neutered exemption, which knocks the price down to $14 per dog.
"That makes it impossible for us to continue," she said. "So we are here to ask you to decide if what we are doing is of value to the county and if you want us to continue, because at the current price we absolutely cannot continue."
The group already has boarding costs, transportation costs and a high annual veterinary bill, she said. The added burden of license fees is not something they can handle. Hartman and fellow group member Anne Cornwell – an independent candidate for county commissioner who is running largely on the dog issue – requested that the license fees be waived entirely.
County Commissioner Larry Payne said that's simply not possible. He said that the county has to come up with some balance on price because whatever it sets for the Friends of the Shelter Dogs, it has to apply to other rescue organizations.
"By law we have to do that, so we have to have a balance of what covers costs," he said, pointing to the Dog Warden's transportation expenses. Payne suggested $10, which Hartman said was "absolutely unworkable" for her group.
Hartman argued that if the county had to euthanize all of the dogs that are being rescued, it would cost significantly more money than allowing them to be rescued without license fees.
"It's my understanding that the shelter's financial picture has completely turned around since 2003, and if you look at the rescue numbers before our group got involved, you weren't getting rescue help," she said.
Cornwell questioned why the price can't be zero. Commissioner Lenny Eliason stated that even dogs that go to research at Ohio State University have a minimum $3 fee. County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said that the $3 minimum would be legally required.
"That's what you should be charging us, the absolute minimum," Hartman said. "You could charge us $3 per dog, which is still more than what we have been paying, which is still adding costs to our group that is already overburdened… Again, I'm exhausted by this fight. I'm exhausted asking the county to do the right thing."
Payne said the county has to make sure it can cover costs.
Eliason said that Blackburn has informed the county that it is not allowed to wave the license fees like it did in the past.
"When it's pointed out that you are not following the strict interpretation of (the law), we have to do something about it," he said. "We have not agreed as to what that amount is going to be. We appreciate your time today. We will discuss it, and we will let you know, as we said, next week."
Hartman said that Blackburn has also said the county is allowed to charge the group $3 per dog.
"In my opinion, if the county wants this process to continue, that is the decision you should make," she said.
Shelter Dogs treasurer Cornwell, in a three-way race with Republican Randy Mace and Democrat Chris Chmiel to fill the seat of current incumbent Democrat Mark Sullivan, reiterated that she believes alternatives are available that would mean no license costs to her group.
"I'm not convinced that it can't be zero dollars," she said. "Because counties all over Ohio give dogs to rescue groups for zero dollars. So that's a question (Blackburn) will have to answer."
Cornwell started her campaign largely on the dog issue. She said Tuesday that this latest situation reaffirms her commitment to change.
"I think it's making it more relevant for me to want to sit here and make a difference," she said. "It's very frustrating. We have devoted our lives to this."