Atwater public safety tax passes

03/06/2013 10:23 AM

03/06/2013 6:56 PM

ATWATER -- Voters narrowly passed a special tax Tuesday to support public safety in their city.

The vote was too close to call late Tuesday night because provisional ballots and vote-by-mail ballots turned in at the polls still needed to be counted.

Wednesday morning, Merced County Registrar of Voters Barbara Levey confirmed the special tax passed with 67.1 percent of the vote. Because the tax is specifically earmarked for public safety, it needed two-thirds of the vote to pass. The final vote tally was 1,822 "yes" votes and 895 "no" votes.

The election was canvassed Wednesday to confirm the results, and should be certified within the next two weeks, she said.

Once it takes effect, the tax will cost consumers an additional 5 cents for every $10 spent on taxable goods purchased in Atwater.

Frank Pietro, Atwater's police chief and interim city manager, said he expects the tax to generate between $1.3 million and $1.6 million a year for public safety.

The tax hike will kick-in within the next 30 to 45 days, he said. The city still has to budget the money once it starts rolling in.

With the extra revenue, Pietro plans to hire some additional officers, bring back some specialized enforcement units, replace worn out equipment and restore some of the pay for the police officers who gave up 22 percent of their pay to help the city balance its budget.

"Now, it's time to move forward in this agency, that's the bottom line," he said.

Had the tax increase not passed, Atwater would've been facing a grim situation. Pietro said he "was on pins and needles" the night of the election.

Four police officers would've been let go, only high priority calls would've been responded to and other areas of the department would've been rearranged to deal with the lack of manpower, Pietro said.

Though some are celebrating the victory, not everyone's pleased with the extra tax.

Joe Malinczak, a 56-year-old Atwater resident, voted against Measure H. He thinks the city should do more to fix its finances before approaching the taxpayers.

"Now, us little people have to pay to bail them out again," he said. "When's it ever going to stop? It starts in Washington, it comes to the small cites -- it all trickles down to you. It's just sad."

However, a vast majority of voters came out in support of the measure.

Ruth Ballard, who's lived in Atwater for four years, is one of those people.

She said the extra sales tax could be a burden on her and her family, but she's willing to take that chance to support public safety services.

"I think it's important for us to support our firefighters and our police officers," she said. The special tax will last up to 10 years.

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

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