Layoffs set in Atwater

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comOctober 3, 2012 

— Scores of layoffs brought about scathing comments from the public during Wednesday's special council meeting, at which officials met to consider declaring a fiscal emergency.

The council declared a common-law fiscal emergency, giving the city more flexibility to negotiate with contracted employees. An Assembly Bill 506 fiscal emergency, which is a precursor to bankruptcy, was carried over to an Oct. 22 meeting.

Management did confirm, however, that many employees were given layoff notices this week and more could follow.

Fourteen employees were given pink slips Monday that become effective Oct. 29, said Frank Pietro, Atwater's police chief and interim city manager. Twenty-four employees received letters the next day, notifying them that they could be laid off as the city tries to balance its budget.

The majority of the layoffs will be in public works, Pietro said, but several other departments will be affected. The only one that isn't being hit with layoffs is the Police Department, but four potential retirements could help ease the pressure on the budget.

"We're still trying to balance the budget and take care of this $3 million-plus deficit," Pietro said before Wednesday's meeting. "Unfortunately, it has been a miserable week for me, having to give out pink slips. For me having to give out pink slips ... to people I've worked with for a long time -- it's just horrible. It's been a nightmare."

Mayor Joan Faul echoed Pietro's sentiment, noting that her saddest day serving Atwater came Monday, when 14 pink slips were handed out.

"It was a very, very hard decision, and basically, if we had not made the cuts, we would have not been able to make payroll," Faul said.

A general fund deficit of more than $3 million led to the fiscal crisis, along with deficits in the water and sanitation funds.

Last week, Fitch Ratings downgraded Atwater's bond status to noninvestment grade from investment grade, meaning that it could be more difficult and more expensive for the city to secure future financing.

During Wednesday's crowded meeting, Pietro said he's working on a plan to alleviate the budget issues, which will be made public within the next few weeks.

Several residents and workers who received layoff notices were at the meeting there to voice their disapproval, and public comments were contentious at times.

Jim Price, an Atwater resident and vice president of operations for Gemini Flight Support, scolded the council members who take thousands of dollars in pay and allowances every year. Councilman Craig Mooneyham and Faul have refrained from taking the payouts.

"These people have been out on the streets, in the parks -- everywhere -- doing the job of this city," Price said Wednesday, regarding several laid-off employees standing in the audience. "Their thanks comes tonight by way of termination. Shame on every one of you."

Price, who's warned the council of the city's precarious situation in past meetings, was one of 10 audience members who spoke during the meeting.

After the meeting, employees who were given layoff notices were visibly upset with city leaders, but said they're hopeful something will be done to allow them to keep their jobs.

"Who's going to do the simple basic services? Who's going to clean the streets?" asked one worker outside City Hall who was dressed in an orange work shirt. He declined to give his name.

"These people suck," he said after taking a draw from his cigarette before throwing it on the ground. "I'll let someone else pick that up."

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.


Atwater by the numbers

POPULATION: 28,626

LAND AREA: 6.1 square miles

YEAR INCORPORATED: 1922

MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $42,226

PER CAPITA INCOME: $17,768

PROJECTED REVENUE 2012-13: $9.2 million

PROJECTED EXPENSES 2012-13: $12 million

PROJECTED GENERAL FUND BALANCE 2012-13: Negative $3.7 million

PROJECTED GENERAL FUND RESERVES 2012-13: $0

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