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Gov. Justice pays county taxes for Babydog after oversight

Gov. Jim Justice paid the county registration fee for Babydog after being informed he was in breach of state law. (Photo Provided)

CHARLESTON – Babydog, Gov. Jim Justice’s English bulldog that became the face of West Virginia vaccine incentive lottery, was a tax scofflaw until Tuesday.

According to the Greenbrier County Assessor’s Office, the county where Justice lives, there were no records indicating Justice or First Lady Cathy Justice have registered Babydog in either county until Tuesday after Justice paid the dog tag fees after questions arose about the issue.

State Code 19-20-2 requires county assessors to assess and collect a $3 head tax on each dog owned by a resident at the time of property tax assessments. State code also places the responsibility on county assessors for collecting head taxes on dogs for municipalities in the county.

“There are no records to indicate the purchase of a dog license,” Greenbrier County Assessor Joe Darnell said in an email Tuesday morning. “It is the responsibility of the owners to purchase the license. The assessor’s office does not contact the owners.”

Owners are required to register their dogs within 10 days of the dog turning six-months old. The assessor sends registration certificates and dog tags to the owner.

Owners are supposed to annually pay the dog tax. In Greenbrier County, the fee is $3 for a dog within the county and $6 for dogs within city limits. The Justices live in Lewisburg.

After registration, owners who refuse or fail to pay the tax within 15 days of the annual assessment can have their dogs impounded by either a county dog warden or county sheriff for 15 days along with a $1.50 fee in addition to the taxes due. If the taxes and fees are not paid within 15 days, the warden or sheriff can sell the dog and deduct the impounding charge and delinquent tax. If the dog fails to sell, the warden or sheriff can kill and dispose of the dog.

In a one-sentence statement Tuesday afternoon, Justice spokesperson Jordan Damron said, “The taxes are current for all canines owned by the Justices.” After emailing the request for comment to the Governor’s Office Tuesday morning, Greenbrier County Assessor Darnell sent another email to this reporter stating that dog tags were purchased for Babydog and two other Justice-owned dogs Tuesday afternoon at $6 per dog for the 2022 fiscal year.

“A gentleman just came into the office and purchased (three) dog tags for this year for Jim and Cathy Justice,” Darnell wrote.

Babydog made her first appearance in Justice’s COVID-19 briefings on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2020. During a June 22 COVID-19 briefing, Justice said Babydog was a Christmas gift from his son Jay and daughter Jill in 2019, confirming that dog tags were not purchased since at least fiscal year 2020.

“We take our pets seriously. We just think of them as children,” Justice said. “The little puppy is running around and everything, and (Jay) kept walking around and saying ‘now, he’s just a little baby herself, she’s just two.’ And he would walk around and say, ‘where did that little baby dog go?’ And so it stuck. From that point forward, that little English bulldog puppy was Babydog.”

Since then, Babydog has made several appearances on COVID-19 briefings and Justice’s inauguration for a second term as Governor. In June, the vaccine incentive lottery was renamed “Do it for Babydog: Save a life. Change your life.” Since the first giveaways on the state’s 158th birthday on June 20, the state has paid hundreds of dollars for backpacks and apparel bags – paid for with federal C.A.R.E.S. Act dollars – with Babydog’s face embroidered on them.

Babydog has accompanied Justice for the awarding of custom pick-up trucks and $1 million cash prizes for the vaccine incentive lottery, including being flown around the state. According to the state Aviation Division, flights on the state airplane to ferry Justice and Babydog around the state three times between June 30 and July 14 to deliver awards cost taxpayers more than $4,600 combined.

The flights also confirm that Justice is still not residing in Charleston as required by the state Constitution. Records show that the state plane continues to pick Justice up in Greenbrier County for his trips across the state. Justice settled a lawsuit brought by former Pendleton County Democratic delegate Isaac Sponaugle in March, agreeing to reside in Charleston as defined by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

In that opinion, Chief Justice Evan Jenkins defined “reside” as “to live, primarily, at the seat of government; and requires that the executive official’s principal place of physical presence is the seat of government for the duration of his or her term of office.”

“(Justice) has represented through counsel that he intends to ‘reside’ in Charleston consistent with the definition of ‘reside’ in the Supreme Court of Appeals’ opinion,” said Kanawha County Circuit Judge Daniel O’Hanlon in his dismissal order in March. “The parties agree that (Justice’s) voluntary agreement to reside at the seat of government within the meaning of the Constitution renders this case moot and that the case should be dismissed.”

“Gov. Justice resides at the Governor’s Mansion in Charleston. Gov. Justice’s domicile is in Greenbrier County, and all his personal property taxes are paid there on items he owns personally like his house and vehicles,” Damron said. “To our knowledge, no recent governor has ever changed their permanent address to the Governor’s Mansion. Public records show that Gov. Manchin maintained a residence in Marion County and Gov. Tomblin maintained one in Logan.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in West Virginia in March 2020, Justice has held daily, three-times a week, and twice-per-week virtual briefings from the Governor’s Office at the Capitol in Charleston. Justice returned to a three briefings per week schedule starting Monday due to the spread of the delta variant.

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