Measure H criticisms irk in Atwater

Neutrality is demanded of councilman, commissioner

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 14, 2013 

— A special election for a half-cent sales tax is rapidly approaching and the debate is starting to heat up.

Bob Calaway, a former Atwater police chief and proponent of the tax, went on the offensive this week during two city meetings. He criticized two city officials who he said have spoken out against Measure H, the proposed tax increase aimed at improving public safety services.

Calaway said Monday at the council meeting that he's been approached by residents who claim Councilman Joe Rivero has been going door to door and telling people not to support the special tax at the March election because it's not needed, and there's no financial crisis in Atwater.

He thinks Rivero should stay impartial on the proposed tax hike.

"Why is Mr. Joe Rivero not neutral?" Calaway asked the council Monday night. Rivero was not at the meeting.

Despite several attempts, Rivero couldn't be reached for comment. City officials said he's been sick.

At a Planning Commission meeting Wednesday, Calaway confronted Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol, who wrote a letter to the editor earlier this month criticizing the sales tax measure.

Warchol's letter claimed the sales tax measure, which could generate more than $1 million a year in additional revenue, might not support public safety as much as some may think.

"That tax will go to public safety as promised," according to Warchol's letter. "However, an equal amount will be withheld from the general fund in the second and subsequent years by not budgeting those revenues for public safety."

Calaway denied that, claiming an oversight committee would ensure the money is used as anticipated. He took offense that a city official spoke out against the effort.

"I'm very proud of Atwater. I've been here for a long time and there's too much of the negative stuff that's been going around by a number of people," Calaway said to Warchol. "I can tell you that if it continues, what I will do is I will develop a group of people, we'll send letters to the council and request that you be removed from the Planning Commission."

Warchol said as long as he doesn't use his city title when relaying his opinion publicly, there's no issue.

"We've gone through this before, and I've been assured by the City Council, by the city attorney that as I speak as an individual I have every right to make any comments I want as long as I don't go forward as a planning commissioner," he said to Calaway at Wednesday's meeting. "There's this thing called 'freedom of speech.' "

Voters will decide if they want to institute the half-cent sales tax in a March 5 special election.

Since the funds generated from the extra tax would be specifically earmarked for public safety, the measure needs to be approved by two-thirds of the voters to pass. If passed, the extra tax would last up to 10 years.

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

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