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 already 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 also 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 got us here?
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, even 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from the half-cent sales tax to hire at least four additional officers, restore some of the officers' pay and replace outdated equipment.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 the tax
Everything 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. Now, 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 216 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. A short-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 the tax
While there is a group backing Measure H, there isn't organized opposition to the sales tax hike. However, a handful of 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 to 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.
Price thinks there's more the city should do to correct its finances before approaching the citizens with a tax hike. More privatization could help accomplish that goal.
Fred Warchol, a planning commissioner, agrees that the city needs to fix its financial problems first.
There are steps the city can take, such as collecting unpaid business license fees and putting a stop to subsidizing the enterprise funds with the general fund, to generate more money for public safety.
"I think it's a misguided way of solving the problem," Warchol said of Measure H.
Where the City Council stands
A majority of the Atwater City Council supports the half-cent sales tax proposal.
Mayor Pro Tem Craig Mooneyham said there could be dire consequences if the sales tax increase doesn't pass.
"I won't say that if this measure doesn't pass, that the town's going to go under, however, there will definitely be layoffs and there will definitely be reduced services," Mooneyham said.
After reviewing the budget figures, Mooneyham said, the city needs the half-cent sales tax.
Mayor Joan Faul described that tax as "essential" to the safety of Atwater.
"We have to have it — it's a must," Faul said. "If we want to keep the safety and the well-being of this city, we must have that Measure H so we can re-establish and bring our police staffing up so we can have a safe place because we have major problems with gangs."
Councilman Jeff Rivero wouldn't say whether he's for or against the tax, but he did say he's glad voters get to decide.
Councilman Larry Bergman, a Cal-Fire captain who works at the department's Livingston station, said he's supporting Measure H.
"We need to do something to basically get more support for our public safety," Bergman said. "We just don't have it in our finances to get public safety up to where it needs to be. We've got to do something."
Councilman Joe Rivero couldn't be reached for comment despite several attempts by the Sun-Star.
The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, said Barbara Levey, Merced County Registrar of Voters.
Poll locations include the Liberty Fellowship-Campbell Hall at 281 E. Juniper Ave., the First Church of God at 2100 Fruitland Ave. and the Atwater Community Center at 760 E. Bellevue Road.
Results will start coming in after 8 p.m. when the county releases the results of vote-by-mail ballots returned before Election Day. The results will be updated on the county website as the precincts are counted.
As of noon Friday, 1,374 vote-by-mail ballots have been returned out of the 4,135 ballots issued, Levey said. There are 11,645 registered voters in Atwater.
Anyone with a vote-by-mail ballot is encouraged to turn it in to the elections department by Monday.
Tuesday's election is expected to cost the city about $50,000.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or email@example.com.
POLLING LOCATIONS: Liberty Fellowship-Campbell Hall, 281 E. Juniper Ave. First Church of God, 2100 Fruitland Ave. Atwater Community Center, 760 E. Bellevue Road
CURRENT SALES TAX RATES:
Merced: 8 percent
Los Banos: 8 percent
Atwater: 7.5 percent
Livingston: 7.5 percent
Gustine: 8 percent
Dos Palos: 7.5 percent
Source: California State Board of Equalization