ATWATER -- A special election that could shape the future of Atwater will soon be upon the voters.
The only item on Tuesday's ballot is the half-cent sales tax proposal called Measure H that's been the source of contention among residents.
Some say the tax is a necessity to support public safety, while others think the proposal is too much for taxpayers who've been saddled with utility rate increases, spikes in gas prices and a bump in the state sales tax rate.
If passed, Measure H would increase Atwater's tax rate by 0.5 percent, which would equate to an extra 5 cents for every $10 spent on taxable goods in the city.
The tax would expire after 10 years. The council would be able to rescind the tax early if the city improves its finances and no longer needs the extra revenue.
Since the funds generated from the extra tax would be specifically earmarked for public safety, the measure will need to be approved by two-thirds of the voters to pass.
An oversight committee would be appointed by the city manager to monitor the funds should the measure be approved.
What led to this?
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.
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. Money for officers and equipment has dwindled in recent years.
Police officials have said they'd like to use the funds from the half-cent sales tax to hire at least four additional officers, restore some of the officers' pay and replace outdated equipment.
Arguments for tax
Things started going downhill for law enforcement in 2007, said Bob Calaway, a former Atwater police chief. That's when the department had 36 sworn officers. That number has fallen to 26.
Calaway described the tax hike as "a very small amount of money" people would be paying to enhance emergency services in Atwater.
From 2001-10, similar tax measures have been adopted in hundreds of other cities, he said. When introduced to voters in other municipalities, they've passed 49 percent of the time.
Eric Lee, an Atwater businessman and a backer of Measure H, said this is one proposal that needs community support.
"I don't like paying taxes; most of us don't," he said. "But we understand that there are certain things that we need to pay for in this life of ours and police, fire, emergency services is one of them."
From a business perspective, the tax is necessary to ensure commercial security, said Lee, who's been in Atwater for 60 years. An inadequately staffed Police Department could mean delays for some lower-priority calls.
While many are weary of the City Council since the fiscal crisis that brought Atwater to the edge of bankruptcy, Lee and other supporters of the tax measure stressed the council wouldn't have access to Measure H funds.
Arguments against tax
While there is a group backing Measure H, the sales tax increase has no organized opposition to. However, some residents have spoken out against it.
Jim Price, an Atwater resident since 1981 and vice president of Gemini Flight Support, said a half-cent sales tax added on top of other increases citizens are facing right now is too much.
"A half-cent sales tax, which is being proposed here in March, is going to be one of those items that is going to be very strenuous financially on the people of this city," he said during a council meeting last month. He cited state tax increases, utility rate increases and high gas prices as reasons why people can't afford it.