BROOKSVILLE — For Smoker, it was just business as usual as the black pit bull ran about his Ridge Manor neighborhood in April.
But because it was Smoker's sixth violation of Hernando County's animal ordinance, an Animal Services officer slapped the dog's owner, John Allen Ward, with the stiffest fine on the citation form — $15,000.
Adding to the sting, on the same day, Ward's schnauzer, Sinbad, was cited for no proof of a rabies vaccination — its fourth violation of various provisions in the ordinance. That resulted in a $5,000 citation.
Because of the notation on one of Smoker's previous cases, Animal Services wouldn't immediately let Ward retrieve his dog. That's when Cheryl Fagundo, president of the local rescue group known as Animal Rescue Friends Network, stepped in.
What Fagundo found raised serious questions. Hernando County, she said, was fining far over the cap set out in state law. By Florida statutes, county animal control and cruelty ordinances must provide "a maximum penalty not to exceed $500."
On Tuesday, representatives of ARFN will ask the County Commission for help. While the county ordinance previously included fines up to $15,000, last year that changed to the $500 state maximum. But Ward's citations came this year and still included the higher fines.
The rescue group wants the commission to enforce its new ordinance and make reparations to owners who have paid too much in fines, had liens placed on their homes or who turned over their animals to be euthanized to avoid large fines.
The huge fines, Fagundo said, appear to be used as a bargaining chip when Animal Services seeks compliance from dog owners who don't follow the ordinance. She said her group does not condone ordinance violations; it just wants the county to follow the provisions in the law.
When Ward went before a special master, an attorney affiliated with ARFN pointed out that the fines were out of synch with state law. The special master levied a $250 fine. But that doesn't help Ward and his mother with the past offenses.
Peggy Botts has a $4,000 lien on her home because of Smoker's past of roaming and urinating on the neighbor's lawn.
"I need them to take the lien off my house. That's what I need the county to do,'' Botts said.
When she saw the $20,000 in citations, she said she thought, "This is ridiculous. What do they want me to do, give them my house?''
County Attorney Garth Coller declined to comment specifically about Ward's case or ARFN's contention that the county's fines are illegal. He said the county has a process for animal owners to appeal fines.
"All issues that result in a special master order are subject to judicial appeal," he said, "and that is the appropriate process to challenge any arguably inappropriate fines."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.