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A black & white mixed breed dog named Sugar Cookie is shown at Pennsylvania SPCA Lancaster Center in Lancaster Tuesday Dec. 29, 2020.

Making her rounds as a state dog warden supervisor, Megan Horst said she’s collected some horror stories of neglectful dog owners and breeders in southeastern Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, she talked about the time she saw a dog that had an eye popping out of its socket. Another dog had fur so matted it couldn’t properly go to the bathroom. Other stories were even worse.

They’re all things Horst said she’s witnessed while patrolling the region, which includes Lancaster County.

And now, she fears similar cases of neglect and abuse could go unchecked as expenses exceed revenue at the state Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement. Budget problems have already resulted in some staff positions going unfilled, including in Lancaster County where there are numerous breeding kennels, she said.

Horst shared that information at a news conference hosted by state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and other Pennsylvania officials. They are supporting legislation to increase the price of annual dog licenses from $6.50 to $10, which would be the first increase in about 25 years.

Redding said the fee hike would make up for an existing budget deficit while staving off additional cuts at the bureau.

Annually, the bureau operates on a budget of about $8.6 million, largely funded by revenue from purchased dog licenses, as well as kennel licenses, officials said. But recently, yearly license revenue has been about $7.2 million, leaving the bureau with a $1.4 million hole.

Revenue was even lower in 2020, likely due to the economic downturn that followed the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials said.

In the absence of fee hikes, the deficit would be filled by taxpayer dollars for the first time since the bureau was created in 1893, with a proposed transfer of $1.2 million in 2020-21 and another $1.5 million in 2021-22 included in Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed state budget.

Bills introduced in the state House and Senate not only would increase annual license fees, but also hike the fee for a lifetime license — available for dogs that have been microchipped or tattooed — to $49 from $31.50.

The impact those higher fees would have on consumers was only briefly mentioned Thursday. In the past, state officials have defended the increase by noting inflationary costs since the last fee increase and by underscoring that the money pays for wardens whose job it is to protect animals from harm.

Wardens perform specialized work that often requires dog-specific training beyond what’s taught to local and state police, officials said Thursday.

Redding noted that the money is needed to ensure that wardens will be able to fulfill their duties, such as policing and prosecuting canine welfare, reuniting owners with lost pets, inspecting a growing number of kennels and investigating dog bites, state officials said.

“They are barely able to keep up with the minimum requirements for inspection,” Redding said of the state’s dog wardens.

That’s true, in part, because there are 14 fewer dog wardens in Pennsylvania now than there were in 1997, Redding said, again pointing to the deficit and its effect on vacancies.

There are only 45 wardens across the state, not counting a few supervisors. Lancaster County, has been without a dedicated warden for about six months, said Kristen Donmoyer, director of the dog law enforcement bureau. Those duties are currently falling to a rotating cast of wardens from neighboring regions, she said.

That’s true despite the fact that Lancaster County has more licensed kennels than any other county in the state, Horst said.

The legislation backed by Redding and others also would lower the age at which dogs must be licensed from the current 3 months to 8 weeks — “the same age they are legally allowed to be sold,” according to state officials.

The fee increases and other changes will be considered first in the state House and Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs committees.

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