WINTON -- Increasing crime and a rampant number of stray animals were two recurring themes of discussion at a Winton town hall meeting Tuesday night.
Merced County District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey invited Winton residents to speak about community issues at the forum, with a panel of Merced County representatives on hand to answer questions.
Fernando Hurtado, 43, shared his concern about the escalating crime in Winton a town he's called home for the last 30 years.
"I want the name of this town to change," said Hurtado, a father to four teenagers. "We're just tired. We want you guys to do something about it."
After the meeting, Hurtado said violent crime in Winton has gotten "way worse." He said he wants to see more law enforcement presence.
Four people were shot in Winton in July.
"We need to understand what's going on with crime, and frankly, we need more patrol," said Kelsey, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. "We need to understand the motives behind the crime, so we can cut it off before it becomes a bigger issue."
Another resident, who didn't give her name for fear of retaliation, agreed with Hurtado.
People can't even go out at night, said the woman, adding that one of the recent shootings happened near her home. She pointed out that none of the officials present Tuesday night live in Winton and can't understand the situation residents face.
She said the Sheriff's Department has told her to call when she hears gunshots, but that would mean calling every night.
Capt. B.J. Jones of the Merced County Sheriff's Department, who was on the panel, stressed that the safety concerns in Winton are not being ignored.
"I don't want you to think it's falling on deaf ears, but we can only do so much on limited resources," Jones told the room full of residents.
The day after the meeting, Deputy Delray Shelton, spokesman for the Merced County Sheriff's Department, said the department is continuing to fight crime despite cutbacks.
"People do have to realize that we have had budget cuts, and we have less staff and personnel, but we are definitely doing what we can," Shelton said Wednesday. "The public should be confident that when they call, we're coming and we'll do whatever is necessary to rectify the situation."
Shelton said Winton residents can help by remaining vigilant, calling authorities if they spot anything suspicious and staying active in the community through neighborhood watch programs.
Dogs packs stir fear
A number of residents, including 56-year-old Stephanie Ferreria, shared concerns about packs of stray dogs roaming the town.
"If my sons were walking to school, I'd be scared about the dogs following them," said the mother of four.
Rick Blackwell, Merced County animal services manager, reminded residents to call animal control whenever they see the strays. "If we're not aware of a problem, we can't respond to it," Blackwell said.
He also answered questions about the county's new low-cost spray-and-neutering program, which began July 15.
Kelsey said educating the public about responsible pet ownership is a key component of the program.
"We really need to do an education program, and that's part of the spay-and-neuter program," she said, adding that it's "embarrassing" how many unwanted animals Merced County has to ship to rescue groups outside the county.
Economic growth, graffiti, illegal dumping, and repairing broken windows of businesses were a few of the other topics discussed during Tuesday's town hall meeting.
"Everything I heard is a common concern throughout the county," said Kelsey. "I think the people that attended felt they had an avenue for reaching out to the county and having their concerns heard."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar. com.