Atwater meeting to address sales tax

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 21, 2013 

— As city management gets ready to unveil a cost-cutting budget later this month, others will be lobbying for a half-cent sales tax to ensure public safety isn't decimated.

A special March 5 election will decide if the sales tax measure is put in place. Because the funds would be specifically earmarked for public safety, it needs a two-thirds vote to pass.

City documents show the proposed tax could generate about $1 million a year.

The potential tax will be discussed during a community meeting at 6 p.m. today at the Atwater Community Center at 760 E. Bellevue Road.

Bob Calaway, Atwater's former police chief, will be a main speaker at the event. He thinks the measure is an affordable way for residents to pump up support for Atwater's public safety.

To put it in perspective, Calaway said the sales tax would cost shoppers an extra 5 cents for every $10 spent on taxable goods.

"My belief is if our community is safety conscious and security conscious, and wants to protect their schools, kids and property, they will come out and pass this thing," he said.

From 2001-10, similar tax measures have been adopted in 216 other cities, Calaway said. When introduced to voters in other municipalities, they've passed 49 percent of the time.

The public has been upset with council members and management over the city's financial difficulties, but few have publicly spoken out against the proposed sales tax.

A general fund deficit of more than $4 million, along with deficits in Atwater's water and sanitation funds, led to a financial crisis that's resulted in pay cuts, eight layoffs and other reductions. Although the city averted bankruptcy late last year, its leaders are struggling to bring its budget under control.

In an effort to help the city, the Atwater Police Officers Association took a 22 percent pay cut, though the organization's contract doesn't expire until 2014.

Because the funds generated from the half-cent sales tax would be reserved for public safety, Calaway said the council wouldn't be able to put the money to use for any other purpose.

Public safety use only

The money could be used for increasing pay for police or hiring additional officers as well as upgrading and replacing aging equipment fire and police officials need to do their jobs, he said. How the money is spent would be determined by the city administration with approval from the council.

Though fire personnel are covered under the city's contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the city is responsible for the equipment and fire stations, Calaway noted.

Mayor Joan Faul said the extra tax burden wouldn't be on only Atwater residents -- anyone who shops in Atwater would have to pay the additional amount. She described the half-cent sales tax as an essential tool to protect retailers and the public.

"One of the things that Atwater is known for is our public safety, and we want to keep that up," she said.

Linda Dash, a former Atwater councilwoman, worked on the sales tax proposal with Michelle Gray, the widow of Stephan Gray, a Merced police officer who was murdered in the line of duty in 2004.

Dash said the funds from the tax wouldn't only protect residents through improved public safety, it would improve safety for officers. She wants to prevent another incident such as the one that took Stephan Gray's life.

The extra tax would put Atwater at the same overall sales tax rate as Merced, she noted. If it passes, the city manager would appoint an oversight committee for the tax, which would expire after a maximum of 10 years.

"I'd hate to see what will happen to our town if it doesn't pass," Dash said.

Sales and use tax rates total 7.5 percent in Atwater, Livingston and Dos Palos, according to the state. Rates in Merced, Los Banos and Gustine are 8 percent.

Though no specifics have been given about what would happen if the proposed sales tax measure doesn't pass, city management has said it could result in more cuts.

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

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