David and Pat Watkins have been called carpetbaggers — slipping into Clay County on weekends with their mobile clinic in tow, vaccinating all the dogs and cats, and slipping back into Duval County with bags of money.
That’s the conception held by many of the county’s 76 licensed veterinarians, who complained to the Clay County Board of Commissioners and convinced the board to pass an ordinance regulating mobile veterinary clinics.
Vets complained to the commissioners that the mobile clinic had an unfair advantage and could undercut them on rabies shots and other treatments since they didn’t have to pay property taxes and other overhead costs of operating a brick-and-mortar clinic.
By a 4-1 vote last month, the panel approved a new ordinance regulating mobile businesses, but then exempted most of them. While the ordinance did not specifically name the couple’s mobile clinic, all the discussions and public hearings mentioned no other business but that one.
The ordinance, which only applies to Clay County's unincorporated areas, requires mobile clinics to buy a yearly permit and does not allow them to operate at a site more than once every two weeks or for more than four hours at a time. It also requires $500,000 in liability insurance, but the Watkinses say they carry $1 million.
David Watkins said the ordinance still doesn’t have some of the details on how to get a permit and how much it will cost. They don’t know if it will keep them from operating in the county. They haven’t ruled out a legal challenge to the ordinance.
They contend they are merely providing lower-cost, high-quality veterinary services that would be too expensive for many the customers at a standing clinic. They said they're not trying to run any of the county veterinarians out of business.
There seems to be a belief in Clay County that it has a “moat around it” and others cannot come into the county and provide services, Pat Watkins said.
“Shouldn’t people be allowed to choose where they spend their $10?” David Watkins asked. “Our rabies shots are cheaper than anyone else's in Clay County.”
One of their customers who spoke at a public hearing called them “angels of mercy” for providing essential services to her pets, which she considers her family.
The issue came to the surface last September when the county and some of the commissioners received complaints about the couple’s Cheap Shots Inc. mobile clinic, which does business as Pet Shots Affordable Wellness Clinic. They also own a brick-and-mortar office in Jacksonville Beach.
One Saturday, the county sent staff members to check out the mobile clinic to see if it was violating any rules on zoning, parking, or blocking ingress and egress. The staff members found no problems.
The couple doesn’t understand why their clinic is the center of such controversy.
“We thought about getting T-shirts with a target on them,” said Pat Watkins. “For us, it’s been to provide as much quality, affordable care to the communities as possible.”
About once every four or five weeks, they pull their 16-foot trailer into a parking lot at a Clay County business and open for business, often to a long line of people already waiting with their dogs and cats.
David Watkins said every animal entering a mobile clinic receives a no-charge physical exam before receiving any shots, vaccines or treatment.
“We’ve never had an issue with DBPR [Department of Business & Professional Regulation, which regulates veterinarian and vet clinics]. There has never been an issue with them,” he said.
This particular issue first surfaced publicly at an Oct. 15 meeting of Clay County’s Economic Development Committee when it determined that services of businesses like the mobile veterinary clinic were not covered by the county’s “transient merchant ordinance.”
A series of meetings and public hearings led to the drafting of the ordinance.
At a public hearing, Jacksonville attorney Jill Faye Bechtold, who represented the Watkinses, told commission members the proposed ordinance was unconstitutional.
“The proponents say this is leveling the playing field,” she said. “The way we look at this, it is just restricting the mobile business.”
“What you are doing is restricting one segment who offers a faster, better and cheaper way to do it,” she said.
The Florida Supreme Court has ruled it is unconstitutional to damage one class of business to benefit another class, she told commissioners.
At one of two public hearings, several Clay County veterinarians urged commissioners to approve the ordinance, which passed March 26.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s workable and can always be amended if necessary,” Commissioner Doug Conkey said.
Casting the lone dissenting vote was Commissioner Ronnie Robinson, who complained the ordinance was unnecessary and too restrictive.
“Why do we go out of our way to make it difficult to do business?” Robinson asked, noting he had allowed the couple to operate the clinic from his business lot in the past.
Jacksonville veterinarian Tiffany Mosley, who works as a relief vet at clinics in Duval and Clay counties, said vets are concerned because it's hitting them in the pocketbook. She was in favor of the ordinance.
“It’s a good business model — you go from parking lot to parking lot to parking lot, without any fees,” Mosley said.
Mosley rejects the mobile clinic label. “They are a limited service vet set up in a parking lot. It's like an assembly line,” she said
Pat Watkins disagrees.
“We don’t know the rationale for all clinics, but for us, it’s been to provide as much affordable care as possible.”
Exempt from the new ordinance are food trucks, nonprofits and human health services such as mobile mammography units, which are covered by other state and county regulations.
At the meeting when the ordinance was approved, county pet owners and animal lovers said that without the low-cost vaccinations and veterinary services, their pets would suffer needlessly and possibly die because of the high fees at veterinarians' offices.
“They [mobile veterinary clinics] are usually not that much cheaper,” Mosley said. She also operates Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In-Home Euthanasia in Jacksonville.
“It’s all about the value. It’s not a good deal if you don’t need it,” she said.
David Watkins said he doesn’t know what other clinics charge, and costs vary from clinic to clinic. At his mobile clinic, the office visit is free and rabies shots are $10 with no additional charges. Some veterinarians add on fees for office visits and disposal of sharp instruments.
“We try to keep our services affordable, while providing quality care,” he said.
Multiple calls and emails to Florida Veterinary Medicine Association and its executive director, Philip J. Hinkle, were not returned.
Calls and emails to several veterinarians in Clay County, who spoke at the public hearings, were not returned.
Mosley said the mobile clinic question is not just a Northeast Florida problem.
“It is all over the state. We [brick-and-mortar veterinarians] do not approve it, or condone it in any form,” Mosley said.