It now costs three Merced County cities nearly $100 for each animal they take to the county animal shelter.
Since July 1, the cities of Merced, Atwater and Livingston have been paying $98.50 per animal, a $6.50 increase from the previous fee of $92.
Gustine saw a $15 increase in its fee per animal, rising from $60 to $75.
The four cities bring stray and unclaimed animals to the county after a short holding period. Most of the county’s cities, with the exception of Los Banos and Dos Palos, do not operate their own animal shelters.
Animal Control Director David Robinson acknowledged the fee increase can strain the cities’ budgets, but said it’s needed to cover the county shelter’s operational costs.
“None of us like to see rates going up. We all have very tight budgets that we’re trying to live within,” said Robinson, who is also the county agricultural commissioner. “Obviously it stretches their program to have to pay more, but it’s the reality of doing business.”
The Merced County auditor runs a cost analysis of animal control each year based on animal intake and other data, Robinson said, and fees remained stagnant the past three years. The cost of employees, pet food, supplies and veterinary care are just a few factors that can affect fees.
Livingston has made a push to reduce its stray animal population with “SWAT operations” and responsible pet ownership workshops, but Police Chief Ruben Chavez said the higher fee will affect his department’s budget.
The city turns over about 300 to 400 dogs a year to the county, the chief said.
“That hurts us a lot as a municipality,” Chavez said. “And that’s why we’re trying to get ahead of this and work with residents to get them to spay and neuter dogs. We’re doing what we can to make sure we keep animals off the street.”
Officials in Atwater estimate an average of 10 stray animals are picked up each day. If they all wind up at the county shelter, that’s close to $1,000 in daily costs to the city.
“Every stray we take in goes to the county animal shelter because we don’t have our own facilities,” said Atwater Police Cpl. Armando Echevarria, who oversees the city’s animal control officer. “It definitely adds up over the fiscal year for our department.”
If Atwater goes over its animal control budget, Echevarria said, “that results in officers being taken off the street to handle those calls to take strays off the street. We now have to weigh each and every call.”
Merced County Animal Control is dealing with an influx of unwanted pets on a tight budget. The 2014-15 proposed animal control budget is $1.8 million with revenue estimated at $590,000, according to documents.
In fiscal year 2012-13, the department took in $490,896 in revenue, but expenses were close to $1.6 million. That year, 1,567 animals from the cities were euthanized.
Spay and neuter
Law enforcement and county leaders agree the solution boils down to responsible pet ownership.
“Please spay and neuter your animals. If we can reduce the population, there are fewer animals that need to come in to the animal shelter,” Robinson said. “Properly care for your animals and don’t let them run loose. If a dog is inside a yard or kennel, it’s not going to come to my animal shelter.”
Sabrina Weightman, community service officer for the Gustine Police Department, said her agency decreased the number of animals going to the county from 85 in 2012 to 16 in 2013. Taking them to the county shelter is a “last resort” for her department, she said.
“The increased fee is hard for us, especially because it’s an hour drive and it adds to our expenses,” Weightman said. “Instead, we kennel them and I put their faces on Facebook to see if an owner will come forward. I also have a small network of rescues that take a lot of our dogs.”
Although Dos Palos operates its own animal shelter, it holds just 12 dogs; the rest are either given to rescue groups or put to sleep, said Police Chief Barry Mann. The city picks up 60 to 70 dogs a year, the chief said, but it can’t afford to take them to the county.
“The cost was too much for our city,” Mann said. “They probably have a good reason to charge what they charge. However, we can’t afford it so we have to opt out.”
In neighboring Stanislaus County, cities don’t pay per animal brought to the county shelter. Instead, the cities operate within a joint powers authority and pay a percentage of the shelter’s overall budget, said Annette Patton, executive director of Stanislaus Animal Services Agency.
“All the expenses are figured out at the beginning of the year per partner, based on animal intake,” Patton said, adding that Merced County’s fee structure could motivate cities to reduce strays. “It’s an incentive for the cities to start doing something, like putting together spay-and-neuter programs, because you don’t want the animal intake going up.”