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County bends on contract for animal services
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The county will not hold Ceres and other cities to a drop-dead date of Dec. 31 to sign up for animal control services.

In October the county told the contract cities of Ceres, Hughson, Modesto, Oakdale, Riverbank, Waterford and Patterson that it would be terminating the existing animal control services contract as of Dec. 31 in lieu of a much more expensive agreement as the county ramps up to build a new Animal Shelter.

The county has also shifted its eye on rehabilitating the old shelter on Finch Road to build a new shelter on Crows Landing Road at the county's government center.

The county wants cities to help to finance a new shelter since they contribute dogs and cats to the pound. Estimated to cost $11 million, the county wants Ceres to pay 11 percent of the costs since the same percent of the animals coming to the shelter originate from Ceres.

After the Ceres City Council voiced its displeasure over the county's "take it or leave it" attitude, the county softened its stance. At its Dec. 8 council study session, the council learned that the change of plans. The county will continue providing animal control services to the cities until April or May. However, the county wants cities to write a non-binding letter of intent to participate in a joint shelter by Jan. 15, and decide to commit to a financing plan by May.

For those cities choosing not to participate, the county will continue offering animal control services until June 30, 2010 to give them time to scramble for a new service provider. It appears that Riverbank is talking to Oakdale about provide animal control services while Newman is teaming up with Gustine, a nearby Merced County city.

Turlock has its own animal control officers.

County officials say the existing shelter on Finch Road is woefully inadequate and now want to build a new center rather than rebuild the old one. The county was blasted in a 2005 Grand Jury report for the condition of the Animal Shelter. Supervisor Jim DeMartini said the 35-year-old county animal facility is overcrowded and that materials used in the shelter are more prone to spread diseases to the animals held there. DeMartini said that the problem worsened when the state passed a new law that requires counties to hold animals for a minimum of five days.

Rather than asking cities for the funds ahead of time, the county plans to roll the costs into animal services contracts. The city of Ceres currently pays $85,517 annually to the county to take care of loose dogs and cats in Ceres. The county was proposing to charge Ceres $497,432 per year - something Ceres Mayor Anthony Cannella said the city cannot afford. He countered that the county should offer a tiered level of services or consider gradual increases in costs.

The county now is willing to look at different funding plans, said City Manager Brad Kilger.

Cities not wanting to participate in the new site would have the option of possibly using the old site.

Nancy Smith, co-chair of the county Animal Advisory Board, told the council she's glad that the county and cities are in better graces. She supports the new shelter and said the existing shelter is "severely overcrowded and an embarrassment."