Atwater residents, officials discuss public safety tax

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 22, 2013 

— There's a lot at stake for the city next month.

During a March 5 special election, voters will decide if they want to institute a half-cent sales tax aimed at improving public safety.

Concerned residents and community leaders met Tuesday at the Atwater Community Center to discuss the proposal and figure out how to get it approved at the polls.

Since the funds generated from the extra tax would be specifically earmarked for public safety, the measure needs be approved by two-thirds of the voters to pass.

Bob Calaway, former Atwater police chief, is hopeful it gets enough support.

"From a safety and security point of view, I don't see any alternatives but this thing passing," Calaway said as he spoke to the crowd of about 30 people. "Because the alternative of it not passing is something that I personally don't even want to think about."

If passed, staff estimates it will bring in about $1 million a year for the city. For every $10 spent on taxable goods in Atwater, shoppers would pay an extra 5 cents.

Calaway said that extra revenue would be a lifeline to a department that's been cut to 26 officers from 36 in 2007.

With more than 2,000 calls for service a month, Calaway said, the lack of officers is creating longer response times for many situations.

A smaller police presence doesn't pose a safety risk only to residents, it also poses a risk to officers, he said.

Michelle Gray, the widow of Stephan Gray, a Merced police officer who was murdered in the line of duty in 2004, spoke at Tuesday's meeting.

She pointed out that her husband was riding solo when he was killed and said more officers on shift not only allows for proper backup, it can deter criminals from using violence against officers.

"I've had people tell me, 'You know, I don't think we can afford to have a tax,' " Gray said. "Quite honestly, I don't think you can afford not to as a city. I don't think we can afford to lose another officer. The emotional toll it takes on a family -- I don't really want to go into that."

The half-cent sales tax topic has been brought up at several city meetings and forums. While it has generated a lot of questions, no one has spoken out against it at those meetings.

Though some residents are weary of a potential sales-tax hike, Calaway thinks getting out information about the measure and public safety situation to the public would help win over some who are against it.

Several of those in attendance at Tuesday's meeting encouraged others to knock on doors and speak to residents about how the tax could improve public safety.

In the wake of the city's financial crisis, much of the fiscal damage has been done.

A general fund deficit of more than $4 million, coupled 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. The city averted bankruptcy late last year, but did declare a common-law fiscal emergency.

City management is expected to bring a balanced budget proposal to the City Council on Monday. Though few details are known about the financial plan, it's expected to significantly reduce costs.

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

The funds from the half-cent sales tax could be used for hiring additional officers, restoring some of the officers' pay and replacing outdated equipment.

With police cruisers that have more than 100,000 miles and malfunctioning computers, Lt. Sammy Joseph of the Atwater Police Department said those would be two focuses if the extra tax goes through. He'd like to see four more officers hired.

If the measure is passed, the city manager would appoint an oversight committee that would make recommendations to the city manager before it goes to the City Council for a vote.

The estimated cost of the special election is $46,000 to $55,000, according to Stacey Cotter, assistant registrar of voters for Merced County. Recent elections have cost $4 to $4.50 for each registered voter.

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

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