Modesto council hikes penalties for vicious dogs

Modesto animal control officers will have an easier time seizing vicious dogs that attack people under new penalties the City Council approved Tuesday night.

That was good news to two people who told the council their pets were mauled by pit bulls.

"These two dogs destroyed my family," Dan Steckman, 33, said. "Those are more than animals to us."

Steckman said two pit bulls belonging to one of his parents' neighbors broke through a fence Jan. 26 and slipped into his parents' home, where the large dogs killed his parents' Chihuahuas.

"My mom doesn't feel safe in her own house," Steckman said.

The council's unanimous vote raised the severity of penalties for keeping vicious animals from an infraction to a misdemeanor.

The difference means officers can arrest owners of vicious dogs, or cite them with $500 penalties instead of $100 citations.

The tougher penalties for canine attacks distinguish those offenses from animal nuisance violations, such as keeping a pet without a license. Previously, all animal code violations were punishable by $100 fines.

Police tallied 285 reports of dog bites last year, down from 301 in 2005. They responded to 772 calls of vicious animals in 2007, down from 854 in 2005.

Council members said they wanted to ensure that seriously vicious dogs could be taken by the city. Animal control Supervisor John Bear said a first offense rarely leads to that process.

"The process should be anything but long," Councilwoman Kristin Olsen said. "If we are allowing a first chance, the second chance could be the death of someone."

In other business, the council awarded a $1.2 million contract for a sewer-mapping project to a Modesto consultant, despite a complaint from another in-town bidder who said his company could have done the job for $500,000 less.

The contract went to Stantec Consulting and O'Dell Engineering. It charges them with upgrading the city's geographic information system for its sewer utilities to meet an order from the state Water Resources Control Board.

Kirk DeLaMare, president of Mid Valley Engineering, wrote a letter to the council complaining that the city boxed out his company's bid even though it came in about $700,000.

Public Works Director Nick Pinhey said a panel of six city employees evaluated five proposals from engineering firms and picked the one that appeared most qualified to do the work. Stantec's proposal stood out because of its experience, Pinhey said, and the bid showed it understood the project.

Pinhey said the panel did not look at the cost estimates until after it had selected the best firm. The city negotiated with Stantec and got the original bid of $2.1 million lowered by extending the deadline and removing some work.

Stantec engineer Chris Vierra, a Ceres city councilman, said his firm presented a reasonable bid that would not be subject to cost overruns.

"We have what it takes to get this job done," he said. "It would be unfair to you to bring a contract that was severely under-priced and hit you with a change order or a markup later."

DeLaMare wanted the council to conduct interviews with other bidders. The council declined to do so, but members raised concerns about how the city evaluated the proposals.

"I think it's a mistake to say the price tag doesn't matter," Olsen said.

Cost estimates came in from a low of $249,000 to a high of $2.7 million, which prompted council members to wonder if all of the firms knew exactly what was asked of them.

"It's pretty unusual to to have this broad a discrepancy on professional services," said Councilman Brad Hawn, an engineer. He favored the city's selection process, saying it was appropriate for the kind of work the city was seeking.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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