January 4, 2013

Balanced budget expected for Atwater later this month

ATWATER -- Officials are hustling to complete a financial plan for the fiscal year and a balanced budget is expected to be done by a Jan. 28 council meeting.

Details are preliminary and the numbers are still being worked on, said Frank Pietro, Atwater's police chief and interim city manager. Figures won't be available for another week.

There aren't any additional layoffs anticipated at this time, he noted.

Councilman Larry Bergman said he's glad management isn't calling for more cuts to staff.

"That's the last thing we need to do," he said. "We're already bare-bones."

Though Bergman's hesitant to make any forecasts of Atwater's financial future, he did say that when it comes to the city's budgetary hardships: "We didn't get into these overnight, and we're not going to get out of them overnight. We have a long way to go."

Atwater's been battling a general fund deficit of about $4.2 million in addition to deficits in the water and sanitation funds.

Simply identifying revenues and cash flow is a major part of correcting the city's budget, said Mike Oliver, managing consultant for Municipal Resource Group, a financial consulting firm hired by the city.

The firm's been working closely with city management to formulate a budget while meeting with staff and department heads to identify costs and expenditures.

Oliver said officials are looking at all revenue sources as they work on the budget.

"We're going through them all," he said. "We're making some progress."

While the fiscal crisis has developed over a long period of time, it didn't climax until late last year.

The council declared a common-law fiscal emergency in October to give the city more flexibility to negotiate with contracted employees.

A fiscal emergency under Assembly Bill 506 would have been a precursor to bankruptcy, but the council put a stop to those hearings in November.

In addition to several layoffs, many city employees took huge pay cuts in recent months.

The city has adopted large water rate increases, and sanitation rate increases aren't far off. There will be a special election in March for voters to decide if they want a half-cent sales tax increase aimed at supporting public safety.

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

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