MERCED — The city of Merced's stray animal population is an ongoing problem, and one neighborhood group says that it's not improving.
"I think the problem is getting worse," said Isabel Sanchez. "Nothing gets done. What are we to do as parents?"
The 74-year-old Merced resident is a member of "Neighbors United for a Better South Merced," which formed in 2008.
The group plans to attend the Merced City Council's budget review session Monday to plead for more resources for animal control.
The city recently posted its proposed budget for 2013-14, and no additional resources were added to animal control.
Brad Grant, Merced city finance director, said animal control is included in the $207,077 proposed for the overall police budget. It was $267,484 for 2012-13 and $311,195 in 2011-12.
One full-time animal control officer works during the week, covering more than 23 square miles in Merced. There's part-time help on a few days not to exceed 960 hours per year.
No animal control officers work on weekends in Merced.
Call to add an officer
Group members say this staffing level is not nearly enough and want the city to add another animal control officer.
"We know that there's only so much one person can do," said Minerva Perez, 32. "But it is a public safety issue because there are dangerous dogs, and they can cause accidents."
Perez said her group used cameras to document the number of dogs roaming in south Merced for two weeks. They counted 44.
Most animal-related calls to Merced police dispatch are regarding strays, according to data compiled by the department.
There were 574 stray calls this year and about 1,760 last year. That number went up from 1,654 stray calls in 2011, according to Lance Eber, the department's crime analyst.
Merced police Lt. Bimley West, who manages the animal control division, said it would be nice to hire more officers, but the city's economic forecast makes it difficult.
"I think that until our city budget has improved, we're going to continue to operate with the skilled personnel that we have," West said. "As things get better, more resources can be devoted to adding animal control officers."
Kim Herzog, Merced police animal control officer, said she agrees that she needs more help. "I feel the same way. It's just a matter of 'Where is the money going to come from?' " she said.
"We just don't have money flowing around to employ more personnel right now," Herzog said.
The 2013-14 proposed budget calls for adding four additional police officers because of a Community Oriented Policing Services Office grant, but the funding is specifically intended for patrol officers.
The department has 116 full-time positions, 84 of them being sworn officers.
If the city can't afford to hire another officer, Perez said, then more emphasis should be placed on enforcing leash and licensing laws.
Herzog said she's happy to issue citations, but there's no point if the city attorney's office won't file charges.
"Once you fine people, and they have to pay money or take time out of their day to go to court, they would stop repeating the problem," she said. "That would cut down on my service calls immensely. I should not have to talk to the same people twice."
Representatives from the city attorney's office couldn't be reached for comment.
Although the problem of strays isn't unique to south Merced, group member Sue Caldera, 34, said that's where education about spaying and neutering is needed.
"We face challenges such as lack of Internet and people not speaking English," Caldera said.
The group intends to meet with other groups to create a multilanguage education program. Herzog said she wants to be included in that discussion.
"My goal is to gain compliance," she said. "People have to hold themselves and their neighbors accountable. I'm not the one turning the animals loose."
HOW TO HELP
SPAY, NEUTER PETS Spaying or neutering prevents overpopulation and saves the lives of animals that might otherwise by put down in a shelter or killed on the street.
New Beginnings for Merced County Animals offers free or low-cost spay or neuter procedures based on owner's ability to pay. Call Sharon Lohman at (209) 769-2122.
MICROCHIP Get your pets microchipped and they have a better chance of being reunited with you if they get lost. The Merced County Animal Shelter offers microchips for $15. Call (209) 385-7436 or stop in to inquire.
CONFINEMENT Always leash dogs in the front yard and never let them run loose. If you cannot care for your animal, do not dump it on the street. Contact a shelter or rescue group.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.