EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 20, 2013

Clerks must hound delinquent pet owners

Clerks have to hound delinquent pet owners

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — The deadline has come and gone. The one-month grace period has passed, too. But thousands of dog owners in Southern New Hampshire still haven’t registered their dogs.

Nudging, nagging and knocking is a spring ritual in some area towns. They have to be, well, quite dogged to bring pet owners in line.

Newton Deputy Town Clerk Cheryl Saunders has been busy chasing down delinquent owners.

“I’ve spent the last two or three days calling people,” she said. “I must have made at least 400 phone calls.”

But, Saunders said, that’s the only chance she will give residents to pay up.

“It’s my only warning,” she said. “I tell them they need to come out as soon as possible.”

The phone calls worked. In the last week, the number of unlicensed dogs dropped from 400 to 188.

“You will always get the ones that are not too happy about me calling,” Saunders said. “They’ll get mad and say they’ll just go to court.”

If residents still don’t pay, then it’s time to get the police involved.

“The list will go to police next week,” Saunders said. “Then they will physically deliver the fines to people.”

Fines vary from town to town. Newton charges $25 for each dog, while Londonderry fines $30. In Plaistow, the fine is $50. State statute sets the fine for a delinquent dog at $25, but towns may increase that fine, with $50 maximum they can charge.

It’s still not much, but it’s significantly more than the $6.50 to $9 residents would have paid to license their pets on time. Many towns give senior citizens a break. In Salem, for example, the fee is just $2.

Despite her 400 phone calls and a delinquent list still nudging the 200 mark, Saunders said this year is better than 2012.

“We had an unusual amount of people have to be notified by police last year,” she said. “But normally people are pretty good.”

If residents don’t respond to a fine delivered by police, court action is taken. Taking it that far is unusual, Saunders said.

Statewide, residents are supposed to register their dogs by April 30. All it requires is a rabies vaccine. Many towns now offer residents the opportunity to relicense their dogs online. If that’s not easy enough, dog owners get an extra month’s grace period.

After that, clerks tighten the leash.

There are a lot of unlicensed dogs in Londonderry, Town Clerk Meg Seymour said, but no more than usual.

“We have more than 1,000 dogs whose licenses still need to be renewed,” Seymour said.

That number represents about 20 percent of the town’s canine population.

Fewer people are in the doghouse in Salem.

Between 400 and 500 of Salem’s 3,400 dogs in Salem haven’t been registered.

“Our animal control officer, Corie Bliss, really gets on people to get them in,” Town Clerk Susan Wall said. “We did more advertising this year and it really shows.”

Without an enthusiastic — or available — ACO, the burden falls to the clerk’s office. Just ask Plaistow Town Clerk MaryEllen Pelletier.

“There’s just so much paperwork involved for each dog,” Pelletier said. “It isn’t fair for all the people who did take the time to register their dogs.”

Plaistow sent out 344 warning letters at the beginning of the month. The town is now down to 118 dogs on its delinquent list, about the same as last year, Pelletier said.

Pelham goers a little easier on forgetful pet owners.

“If they come in now, it will be just $1 more than their registration fee,” Town Clerk Dottie Marsden said. “We fine $1 for every month they are late.”

Derry also imposes a $1 fine for each month dog owners are late. But if they drag their feet through the summer, a $25 fine kicks in Aug. 1.

“That’s when they start to ‘fess up,” Derry Town Clerk Denise Neale said.

Some people go to real extremes to avoid paying the registration fee.

Plaistow’s Pelletier has heard some real dog tales.

“We’ve had people say their dogs were gone,” she said. “But then we get the rabies certificate two years later and it’s the same breed, same name and not a puppy.”