Atwater leaders OK balanced budget

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 8, 2013 

MARCI STENBERG/mstenberg@mercedsun-star.com The Awater Police Department found its new chief-Assistant Chief Frank Pietro, who's been with the department for several years. Taken-10-05-2011-Wednesday

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— The city of Atwater adopted a balanced budget for fiscal year 2013-14 for the first time in three years, and city officials are taking steps to avoid red ink in the future.

"We're just going to keep a handle on our expenditures and make sure they don't go over revenues," said Frank Pietro, Atwater's interim city manager and police chief.

The Atwater City Council last week unanimously passed a $39.1 million budget, which projects $11.97 million in revenues and $11.92 million in expenditures.

Police and fire account for the largest slice of the total general fund budget at 66 percent. The city anticipates receiving a $342,000 COPS grant as a critical part of balancing the budget.

Atwater Mayor Joan Faul called the balanced budget a "a fantastic thing" because the city will begin to break even.

"The revenue equals the expenses and that's the key," she said. "We had to stop the bleeding and borrowing from the general fund, and we have done that now."

Balancing the budget meant a tremendous reduction in expenditures, Pietro said, in addition to steep sacrifices made by city employees.

Employee concessions included laying off nine workers, slashing employee salaries by 10 percent, reducing police officer salaries by 22 percent and continuing furloughs every Friday.

Pietro also sought out money that was owed to the city in the form of unpaid invoices — close to $2 million. Pietro said he was able to recover the majority of the past-due funds.

Now that the budget is balanced, Pietro said the city will take several steps to ensure it stays that way.

For example, staff will keep an eye on the city's financial forecast through a detailed report presented by the treasurer at a City Council meeting each month.

"I want the council to be fully aware of what's going on in their city," Pietro said.

The city will also upgrade its computers beginning Jan. 1 to include a program that allows each city department to track its revenues and expenditures.

Over the past four years, the city's revenue has decreased by 18 percent, according to city documents. The city's current deficit stands at $3.9 million, which was accumulated over the past four years, Pietro said.

Pietro's future goals for the city include closing the deficit, building back the city's reserves and restoring the salaries of the city's 79 employees. "I'd like to see all employees get back what they lost," he said.

Faul credited Pietro for getting Atwater — the city that once was considering bankruptcy — back on track. "He was a leader. … We have a wonderful future ahead of us," she said.

City officials also credited residents for passing Measure H. Voters passed the public safety sales tax measure by a margin of 67.1 percent in March.

Supporters of the tax predict it will generate $1.3 million to $1.6 million a year for public safety.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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