Home Augusta County leader: Animal shelter has illegally been assessing civil fees on pet owners

Augusta County leader: Animal shelter has illegally been assessing civil fees on pet owners

dog paw in human hands
(© isavira – stock.adobe.com)

The Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center has been illegally charging civil fees to pet owners whose animals end up at the shelter, one member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors alleges.

Scott Seaton, who represents the Wayne District on the county BOS, raised the issue at the board’s Wednesday public meeting, and in a Thursday interview with Augusta Free Press, Seaton said the practice has been in place “for a long time.”

“How is this not conspiracy to defraud people?” said Seaton, pointing out that county administration was alerted to the lack of ordinances in the animal shelter’s three localities – Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro – several weeks ago, and that the county, along with Staunton and Waynesboro, who all cooperate in the operations of the open-admission municipal animal shelter, has not taken steps to address the legal issue.

“I didn’t find anything in the code that allows us to charge these fees. It looks like the county and the two cities are illegally charging the fees,” Seaton told AFP.

The shelter has come under closer public scrutiny since the tragic story of Annabelle, who ended up at SVASC after being scared by a structure fire near her Craigsville home and was picked up by a county animal control officer.

Annabelle’s owner, Jessica Evans, said she didn’t have the money to pay fees related to her dog running at large – and was convinced to sign paperwork surrendering her dog to the shelter.

Evans told the animal control officer and the clerk handling the paperwork that she wanted to re-adopt her dog when she got paid, but her dog was euthanized before she could take care of the fines.

Seaton asserted Thursday that “Annabelle would still be alive” if not for the civil fees unlawfully assessed to Evans.

There is an ordinance on the books in Augusta County that allows the shelter to charge pet owners with animals being held there to charge fees associated with the actual costs of housing the animals, according to County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald.

That fee is set at $15 per day, Fitzgerald told AFP in an email.

The matter of the civil fees that Seaton has raised issue with is being reviewed by legal teams from the three localities “to determine what action, if any, needs to be taken,” Fitzgerald said in the email.

Seaton is adamant that action does need to be taken, not only to clarify things going forward, but to address fees that were illegally assessed to pet owners in the past.

“Why aren’t we returning the money to people who have had to pay these fees? If we make a mistake and don’t pay our property taxes on time, we’re penalized. Why isn’t it the same when the government makes a mistake?” Seaton said.

“It seems to me that we’re making ourselves susceptible to a lawsuit,” Seaton said. “I don’t know if people who have had to pay these fees could end up filing a class-action lawsuit. I’m not a lawyer. It just seems to me that we shouldn’t have to spend money on a lawyer. We should just return the money that people have paid in these fees. If we agree to do that, people would say, thank you for correcting the stupidity.”

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].