By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
In the bizarre world of Dade County government, it's not surprising or even irregular for the absurd to become commonplace. It is, in fact, quite routine for some element of the bureaucracy to use its dubious and arcane powers to sublimely complicate some poor schmuck's life.
But sometimes a case arises that's silly enough to make even Kafka's ghost ruefully shake its head. Take, for instance, Dade County's attempt to foreclose on the house of one Randy Natalino, based on Natalino's failure to annually vaccinate his dog A which has been dead for four years.
Natalino is not above reproach. On May 5, 1990, officials from the Animal Services Division of the Dade County Department of Public Works slapped him with a $50 citation for failure to obtain a required rabies vaccination license for Robert, his aging springer spaniel. He did not pay the fine. But it is Natalino's belief -- echoed by a number of local veterinarians, and perhaps by common law -- that the county, in pursuing a penny-ante deadbeat, has been downright draconian.
In Dade County, dog owners are required by law to inoculate their pets with an annual rabies shot. They're also required to shell out $25 for a county rabies-certification tag. Natalino admits he failed to purchase a rabies tag for Robert, but he says he had the dog vaccinated. And to his way of thinking, the point became moot in September 1991, when Robert had the ill fortune to doze off beneath Natalino's car, where he perished under the wheels when Natalino backed out of his driveway.
About once a year since then, Natalino has received reminder notices from the county, admonishing him to get Robert vaccinated or face additional fines.
"I'd get the letters, see Robert's name, and just think, 'Well, the dog died, so none of this matters,'" says Natalino. "'What business is it of the county's?'"
But in early April of this year, a different kind of notice arrived in Natalino's mail. This one came from his mortgage company. It began like this:
"Norwest Mortgage has received notice that [the] Dade County Treasurer has filed a lien on [your] property for failure to pay a code enforcement fine issued by the Animal Services Division." The letter went on to say that the lien was for $600, and that failure to pay could result in foreclosure.
For Natalino, a shrubbery importer, the letter was upsetting. It was as if the FTD man had shown up at the door and belted him. "When I read that, at first I was shocked, then I was absolutely furious," he recalls.
So he called Norwest seeking further explanation. Surely, he said, this couldn't be. Yes it could, the mortgage company assured him, and they faxed along the letter they had received from Stanley P. Ochmanski, Jr., assistant director of Metro-Dade's Public Works Department. To his horror, Natalino discovered that the county had indeed "filed a lien" on his house because of his "failure to pay a code enforcement fine." The letter was a notice of the county's intent to proceed with the "appropriate legal action" A which, a mortgage company representative informed Natalino, would end in foreclosure unless he paid the $600.
Fast approaching the point where anxiety and resentment intersect, Natalino endeavored to contact Ochmanski. "It took me several tries to get through to him," Natalino recalls. "I talked to an associate of his who said, 'Well, you didn't notify us that your dog died.' I was like, 'I'm supposed to tell you?'"
Eventually Natalino got through to Ochmanski. "At first he took a real hard line on this thing," reports the owner of the dear-departed spaniel. "He was emphasizing the need to protect the public. I told him the public didn't have much to worry about from a dog that's been dead for years."
After some haggling, Ochmanski reduced Natalino's penalty to $70. But when Natalino went to settle the fine at the public works office, he discovered his case was by no means unique.
"I overheard this woman answering calls, saying, 'Yes, sir, I know you get your dogs vaccinated, but we sent you this notice and now there is a lien on your property. You'll have to take care of this.'"
According to Ochmanski (who, incidentally, says he has no recollection of ever talking to Natalino), the county has placed liens on "a couple thousand" dog owners who failed to pay fines incurred for tardy vaccination and/or licensing. And, as Ochmanski will tell you, this isn't something he's losing any sleep over; keeping Dade County rabies-free is a noble task. But some local veterinarians believe public safety isn't necessarily the county's prime concern. The money, they say, matters.
"Animal Control in Dade County gets no money from the general fund A its whole budget is based on the revenues from the sale of dog rabies licenses," explains Dr. Catherine Bancroft, a Coral Gables veterinarian who has been in practice for six years. "The first time you get a dog vaccinated, you buy a vaccination license good for one year. We send that information to the county. Now, medically speaking, you don't have to get your dog vaccinated exactly a year later. [Most vets use a serum that is good for three years, though its effectiveness markedly deteriorates with the passage of time.] But if the county sees that you haven't bought a new license a year later -- even if you've gotten your dog vaccinated -- they can start fining you.
"Here's a typical scenario," Bancroft continues. "Someone calls us up extremely pissed off because they've got a notice in the mail saying they're either going to get fined or have been fined because they don't have a new rabies tag. They've had the shot for the dog but they haven't paid the $25 for the tag. They call up livid and scream. They think we've turned them in to the county. If you're a couple months late, they'll really start harassing you." While Bancroft declines to discuss any specific cases, citing client confidentiality, she says she knows people who also have been fined hundreds of dollars and have had liens put on their houses.
"It is a little absurd," concurs North Bay Village vet Dr. Stephen Brown. "We've had a lot of clients who've had this happen to them. As soon as they get the fine, they rush in to get the vaccination taken care of. The problem is, they think once they get the vaccination, that's it. The fine is still there."
Given Miami's proximity to the Everglades, which is home to many rabies-carrying animals, annual rabies shots for dogs are indispensable, Brown stresses. "I can agree with that totally," he says. But he also notes that the county, perhaps fixating on the bottom line, is not inclined toward compassion and understanding.
"I had one client who happened to be out of town for a long period when it came time to get her dogs vaccinated, and as soon as she got back, she found all these notices of fines," says the vet. "She immediately had her dogs vaccinated but refused to pay the fines. So they put a lien on her property. I talked to someone at Animal Control and said, 'Look, I'm not making any excuses for her, but be reasonable.'" According to Brown, his client was finally let go with a stern warning: Don't ever let this happen again.
According to Ochmanski, matters such as these used to be treated as criminal misdemeanors. But in order to keep the courts clear, county commissioners years ago passed an ordinance making these and other offenses civil matters. As such, they can be appealed to a so-called hearing officer, and if that fails to resolve them, they can be taken to court. But to Ochmanski's knowledge, few cases have ever gotten that far.
"What we're looking to do is not necessarily recover the full value [of the lien]," he says. "We do reduce lien amounts." All the county really wants, Ochmanski insists, is for the original delinquent "base fine" to be paid.
According to a recent state court decision, though, the county's method of fine collection may be improper. Florida's constitution states that a citizen's homestead property is exempt from the levy of creditors, except for taxes and assessments. Two years ago, ruling on the case of Demura v. County of Volusia, Florida's Court of Appeals for the Fifth District not only found that a "code enforcement fine" is not a tax or an assessment, but also held that it is unlawful to use such a lien as a foreclosure tool.
"A basic principle of Demura is that involuntary liens, except for taxes and assessments, do not constitute liens on homestead property," says Howard Cauvel, the Deland-based attorney who won the Demura case. "What [Dade] County is doing, frankly, is rattling a saber to try to get the money when they don't have a real claim against the property."
It appears that Dade is unique in this respect; most other jurisdictions, Broward included, still treat animal code violations as criminal misdemeanor infractions and don't use the lien as a weapon. But Broward also differs from Dade in two other respects. There, rabies tag fees cost twenty dollars (ten for spayed and neutered dogs). Dade gives only a $2.50 discount for altering a pet. "That doesn't give people that much of an incentive to spay or neuter, which ends up putting more strays on the streets," comments veterinarian Dr. Catherine Bancroft.
But the biggest difference between the two counties is that Broward law requires cat owners to have their felines vaccinated and tagged, too. Though cats can carry rabies, Dade's cat owners aren't required to vaccinate or pay the county for a license. In other words, dog owners subsidize animal-control services in Dade County. (This seems to suit cat people just fine: The last time it was proposed that the Metro Commission even consider a licensing regulation, the idea was killed amid a flurry of threats and petitions.)
As for Randy Natalino, he and his wife currently own three dogs, all of which, he says, are up-to-date on their vaccinations.