Atwater council members give up pay, perks

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comOctober 11, 2012 

— In the midst of a budget crisis, all members of the Atwater City Council are declining to take monthly pay and allowances.

Some classify the move as a step in the right direction, but they concede it won't save the city from the tough financial decisions -- layoffs and possibly bankruptcy -- it faces because of a severe budget crisis.

The total cost for the allowances and pay was more than $130,000 a year for the five elected leaders, but that number has been whittled down since Councilman Craig Mooneyham won his seat in November 2010.

Mooneyham declined all pay and allowances and tried to initiate an action to eliminate all council payouts, but his effort was met with silence and the motion died for lack of a second.

Eventually, insurance coverage and related payouts were done away with by the council.

In September, Mayor Joan Faul announced that she would stop taking her pay and allowances, which included $451 in base salary, a $750 car allowance and up to $100 in cell phone reimbursement. Council members receive a base salary of $350, a car allowance of $700, and $100 for cell phone reimbursement.

Councilman Gary Frago said he and the other two council members made the recent decision to turn down pay and allowances to show solidarity with employees, some of whom face layoffs and others being asked to take large pay cuts.

"When we decided to lay off (employees), we decided it's time to do it," he said Thursday.

Jim Price, an Atwater resident and vice president of operations for Gemini Flight Support, has been speaking out against the council's pay and benefits for years.

Price said he was glad to hear the perks are finally being refused by all council members.

"I'm not so naive as to believe that the City Council's pay and everything is going to save the city. It won't," he said. "But it's a matter of demonstrating leadership to show they understand. Everybody has to do their part."

With the exception of Mooneyham, Price said, it's "too little, too late" for the council to show leadership by not taking the perks, which the council started putting into place about 2000.

Price said an appropriate time for the council members to have stopped taking pay and benefits is when they started dipping into reserves to try to patch up the budget.

The City Council members' decision comes as officials are trying to reverse a financial catastrophe that's hit their city.

A general fund deficit of more than $3 million combined with large deficits in the water and sanitation funds have led to drastic reductions in Atwater, including 38 possible layoffs and significant cuts to employee pay.

Last week, the council declared a common-law fiscal emergency to give the city more flexibility in negotiating with employees who are under contracts.

A financial plan on how to get Atwater out of its fiscal mess is expected by the Oct. 22 council meeting.

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

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