Atwater Special Election: Public safety sales tax in hands of voters

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comMarch 5, 2013 

— It's election day in Atwater, and voters are faced with a choice that'll either impact public safety or their pocketbooks.

The only item on the ballot for today's special election is Measure H -- a half-cent sales tax aimed at enhancing public safety.

Supporters argue that the extra tax is needed to protect public safety while the city battles a tight budget, but opponents think there are other ways to improve the city's finances before approaching voters for more money.

Bob Calaway, a former Atwater police chief and backer of Measure H, said he's confident the tax will pass.

"I think they will support us," he said of the voters. "I think they realize the fire and police departments are there to protect safety and security."

If Measure H passes, Calaway anticipates significant improvements to the Police Department because officials will have the means to bring back officers, replace equipment and restore pay.

The Police Department has 26 sworn officers, which is down from 36 in 2007. Officials say police and fire equipment is worn out and needs to be replaced.

To help with the city's budget woes, the Atwater Police Officers Association took a 22 percent pay cut late last year.

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from the half-cent sales tax to hire at least four additional officers, restore some of the officers' pay and replace outdated equipment. The tax could generate more than $1 million a year in additional revenue if it's approved by voters.

Calaway said it's imperative for the department to build itself back up to 2007 staffing levels and bring back specialized units, such as gang suppression and traffic.

"If it doesn't pass, then I think things will get worse, I really do, because we won't have the manpower to do proactive things," he said. "It's going to become very serious."

Though Calaway doesn't agree with those who oppose the tax, he understands where they're coming from.

One of those critics is Atwater resident Jim Price, vice president of Gemini Flight Support.

While he supports public safety, Price said the city needs to do more to fix its finances before adding another burden onto taxpayers who've been saddled with municipal utility rate increases, state tax increases, rising gas prices and a higher cost of living.

"I just really feel there are still ways to find that money," he said, adding that funds could be saved by privatizing certain city functions.

Because the half-cent sales tax increase would be specifically earmarked for public safety, the measure needs 66 percent of the vote to pass, a figure that Price described as "a huge mountain to climb."

He said residents on both sides of the Measure H debate were feeling upbeat going into election day.

"I think it's really going to depend on how many people are going to come out to the polls," Price said.

Today's polling locations include the Liberty Fellowship-Campbell Hall at 281 E. Juniper Ave., First Church of God at 2100 Fruitland Ave. and the Atwater Community Center at 760 E. Bellevue Road. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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

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