City Council hopefuls talk about Atwater budget crisis

Forums are held as election nears

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comOctober 18, 2012 

— ATWATER -- Two forums Thursday night brought out several dozen residents as area political candidates presented varying views on city government, with the Nov. 6 general election on the horizon.

The first event at 6:30 p.m. brought candidates to the Atwater Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on Broadway.

Sponsored by the Merced-Atwater Tea Party, the forum included three candidates for the Atwater City Council, candidates from the Livingston races as well as candidates from other local contests.

The budget was the foremost topic for Atwater candidates. Each candidate was afforded five minutes to give a statement.

Larry Bergman, a firefighter who is running for the Atwater City Council, said current council members don't listen and have failed to act. He said that's lead to more than a $3 million deficit in the general fund, huge cuts to employee pay, possible layoffs, a fiscal emergency and the possibility of bankruptcy.

"We have severe issues," Bergman said. "We're looking at bankruptcy, yet I still think it can be averted with strong, swift action. And it's going to take tough decisions -- decisions this council has yet to make and has refused to make."

Robert Miller, a former Atwater planning commissioner running as a write-in candidate, was in attendance at the forum.

He said he's running because he thinks residents deserve more of a choice. Atwater's challenges have arisen because "nobody was looking at the books," he said, adding that the council needs to be proactive and examine every department.

The three challengers for the two Atwater Council seats, including candidate Daniel Hernandez, were present for the forum. Incumbents Gary Frago and Joe Rivero didn't attend. Frago has suffered from recent health issues.

Hernandez, who's retired, said he doesn't see himself as a professional politician, but thinks there are serious financial problems that need to be solved in Atwater.

"I don't take any pleasure in pointing fingers at what's already transpired," he said. "It's a fact what's happened already."

Hernandez said a lack of accounting and transparency are major issues that led to the city's financial crisis.

Following their five-minute statements, Miller and Bergman went across the street to the Atwater Elementary School District board room for a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

This time, Rivero joined Miller and Bergman to answer questions from moderator Lee Andersen.

The three candidates shared varying opinions about what needs to be done to get the city out of its dire financial situation.

Rivero pointed out that the city needs to continue fostering business growth, while Bergman stressed that there's still room to cut from the budget and that while the economy began to tighten, the city's spending didn't -- inaction that contributed to the crisis.

Though they're not fond of tax increases, Miller and Bergman both said the possibility of a small, temporary sales tax increase might be necessary, mainly to ensure proper funding for the Atwater Police Department.

Rivero, who argued that the city will not declare bankruptcy, said a sales tax increase could be prevented by bringing back a city-run fire department instead of using the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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

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