Atwater voters will decide on Tuesday whether to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to provide additional funding for law enforcement and firefighting.
This critical decision is set against the backdrop of years of financial mismanagement that nearly resulted late last year in Atwater joining the dubious list of municipalities filing for bankruptcy.
While we have some reservations about this measure, the Sun-Star is urging voters to approve it. Here's how we see it:
Atwater police agreed to a 22 percent pay cut last year in a selfless move to try to help the city get out of its financial mess. While approving Measure H isn't designed just to make them whole, nor should it, some of the money will be used for salaries. Unfortunately, it's unclear just how much.
Measure H proponents say the money will also be used to buy new equipment, such as vehicles and bullet-proof vests, for police as well as new turnouts for firefighters. Their technology also needs an upgrade.
On the key question of staffing, they hope to put at least three or four new officers on the streets. Once again, however, this isn't clearly spelled out in the initiative.
What is clear in Measure H is that an oversight committee will be set up to determine how the money would be spent. Its recommendations will go to the council for approval, but it can't alter them or take control of the new tax money.
Proponents say this is a key point because people in Atwater don't trust the council when it comes to managing money.
That's understandable. But while the committee will be independent from the council, it won't be truly independent. Its members will be appointed by the city manager, and right now that's Police Chief Frank Pietro. These days he's pulling double duty as interim city manager, and he makes it clear he'll appoint public safety backers.
They'll have an agenda, and there's unlikely to be much disagreement about how to spend the money. That's a concern, especially with a 10-year sunset provision. That's a long time without any voter oversight.
To its credit, the city has started to raise fees and is working to improve collections, which should bolster revenues. And the economy in the region is finally showing improvement, which would further boost the city's fiscal outlook.
But those dollars won't accumulate quickly enough to bail public safety out of the deep hole the city put it in. And does anyone really trust the council to fully fund law enforcement once the city budget is back in the black?
While we have concerns about this tax initiative, we believe most of those issues can be overcome.
Pietro can put some people on the oversight committee who won't always agree with him, possibly even someone who will have to face the voters. He can make sure at least three new officers actually patrol the city, and carefully negotiate restoration of some salary cuts but spread those out over the life of the tax.
We believe he'll take these important steps. Pietro's already demonstrated he's a good steward of taxpayers' money. Should the council make a move to grab general fund money also earmarked for law enforcement, we believe he and even those who oppose Measure H will fight to put a stop to that -- as should all residents.
Despite our reservations, we recognize this tax is about ensuring public safety at a time when people all over are concerned about gangs, drugs, theft and violence.
There's never a good time for a tax hike, especially in this economic climate. But people have to pay a fair amount for the services they use: water, sanitation and public safety. This one would bring Atwater's sales tax to the same level as Merced, Los Banos and Gustine -- 8 percent.
We believe there's clearly a need for it in Atwater because the city's budget has been balanced on the backs of the people it's counting on for one of its most important commodities -- safety. They've been put at risk with old equipment and poor staffing for purely monetary reasons.
Our commitment to police and firefighters has to be greater than that. They put their lives on the line to protect us. The least the taxpayers can do is make sure they have the tools, training and personnel to do it safely and effectively.
Therefore, the Sun-Star urges Atwater residents to vote "yes" on Measure H.