Haven hit hard by animal adoption tax

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A local animal shelter has been hit hard with an animal adoption tax imposed by the state.

Haven of the Ozarks, in Washburn, is just one of hundreds of not-for-profit animal shelters across the state hit by an animal adoption tax that for-profit and large-scale commercial breeding operations have had to pay as a part of their operations fees.

The tax is imposed on every dog or cat adopted out, which creates a large financial burden to the non-profit agencies across the state.

Mike Steffan, director for Haven of the Ozarks said the tax is especially burdensome during months the organization has a lot of adoptions.

"Most of the time it's manageable," Steffan said, "but there are months that it is a struggle, especially since we are a not-for-profit sanctuary."

In 2012, the tax cost the Haven of the Ozarks approximately $200, because the facility had a slow year.

The facility operates strictly on donations. Each animal averages $150 in vaccinations, food and veterinary care, micro-chipping, spay or neuter services and other expenses. Adoption fees range approximately $50 to $75.

"We generally adopt an animal out at about half of what we put into it," Steffan said.

According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the tax came about as retaliation for the 2010 Proposition B initiative, designed to establish humane standards of care for dogs living in puppy mills in Missouri.

The exemption previously existed for shelters and rescue agencies and was "quietly removed" by the legislature in a bill concerning explosives that was completely unrelated to animals.

The HSUS, the Dogwood Animal Shelter in Osage Beach and the Stray Rescue in St. Louis organizations have asked the Missouri Supreme Court to block the crippling tax, which could cost non-profits up to $2,500 a year.

The suit alleges the provision of SB 795 in question violates the Missouri Constitution in that it differs from the original purpose of the bill, which related to blasting safety.

The plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment that the provision removing the exemption was unconstitutional, as well as punitive injunctive relief against the enforcement of the provision.

Missouri Attorney David B. Cosgrove and lawyers from the HSUS Animal Protection Litigation team are representing plaintiffs in the case.

"Animal shelters are already struggling to care for the state's homeless animals in a weak economy," said Amanda Good, Missouri state director for the HSUS. "The last thing they need is to be hit with a senseless government tax on their lifesaving efforts. This new tax is the wrong policy at the wrong time and will mean fewer dogs and cats will get medical care, vaccinations and the new loving homes they deserve."

State Representatives Noel Torpey, R-52, from Independence, and Jeanne Kirkton, D-91, from Webster Groves, have introduced legislation in 2012 to restore the long-standing exemption to non-profit animal shelters and rescue groups, which are not engaged in commercial activity. The bill was not enacted in 2012, and groups are calling for it to be re-introduced and passed quickly in the 2013 legislative session.

"I will do all I can as a Senator to make sure the exemption is re-instated," said David Sater, of Cassville, representing the 29th Senate District. "The Haven of the Ozarks is a fine facility run by fine people, and they are doing good work.

"I think the portion of the bill that is objectionable to the Humane Society and not-for-profit groups is it allows the Director of Agriculture to revoke the license of any animal shelter he feels is making too much money on their animal adoptions," Sater continued. "There is no structure to the decision, it is just based on his opinion."

Scott Fitzpatrick, newly elected from the 158th House District, had not fully formed an opinion on the issue.

"I am supportive of animal shelters, and having volunteered at one as a young boy, I understand and appreciate the service they provide to their respective communities," said Fitzpatrick. "Whether or not they should be exempt from fees that for-profit entities in the dog breeding or kennel industry have to pay is probably a debate that will be had in 2013.

"I tend to favor ensuring a level playing field on issues like these and not stack the deck, so to speak, in favor of one group or another if competition is involved," Fitzpatrick continued. "Not-for-profit entities already enjoy benefits that for-profit entities do not. I don't see why the for-profits should be held to a higher standard than the not-for-profits in this instance.

"I am sure I will be talking with the stakeholders on this issue if and when a bill is filed that addresses it," Fitzpatrick said. "I will keep an open mind until that time."

Steffan said if the bill passes, it will allow for additional resources to provide for animals at the Haven as well as other rescue groups across the state.

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