Atwater passes budget

ATWATER — Verbal bombshells landed like fireworks during Monday night's contentious council meeting, as city officials took several major steps toward reducing a budget deficit that totals more than $1 million.

The meeting, which lasted from 6 p.m. until 1:08 a.m., included talk about council benefits and the possibility of getting rid of Cal Fire and bringing back a city-run fire department.

The city's fiscal year 2011-12 budget was passed with several amendments.

Council members unanimously voted to reduce their car allowances to $350 a month from $700 a month. The mayor's car allowance was reduced to $350 a month from $750 a month.

During the meeting, Jim Price, an Atwater resident and vice president of operations for Gemini Flight Support, tried to speak his mind on the car allowance -- an issue he's been fighting against for several months.

Despite filling out a speaker card and waiting for his turn behind the lectern, he was overlooked by the council, which passed the item before allowing Price to comment, prompting him to storm back to his seat and slam down a stack of papers.

The council tried to reconsider the item to allow Price to comment, but when Mayor Pro Tem Joe Rivero said he didn't see a need to reopen an item for someone who "throws a fit in the audience," Price lashed out once again.

"That isn't your money, Mr. Rivero, it is our money -- not anybody else's but the taxpayers'!" Price yelled from the audience before being escorted out of the chambers by interim police Chief Frank Pietro.

The item was reopened, but Price had already left after being escorted out.

Monday's action was part of a continued push to reduce council benefits to save the city money. In a July meeting, the council also eliminated its health insurance and in-lieu of health insurance payments.

The council voted Monday to reduce employee in-lieu health insurance payments to 50 percent from 100 percent, with an acceptance deadline of Dec. 30.

Though the council took several steps to reduce its cost to the city, it did pass a resolution that increases cell phone reimbursement to $100 from $75 for council members, as long as they show a monthly invoice of their cell phone plan.

The item passed on a 3-2 vote, with Joe Rivero and Councilman Craig Mooneyham voting "no."

Mooneyham, who ran for council on a promise of foregoing the monetary perks, was the only council member who consistently turned down the benefits, except for the health insurance, which he was required to take for child support reasons.

With the health insurance out of the picture, Mooneyham isn't taking any perks, including the $351 a month base salary for council members. However, the meeting was dominated by the council's vote to send a notice of termination to Cal Fire.

The motion was made by Councilman Jeff Rivero, and was passed on a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Joan Faul and Mooneyham voting "no." It also authorizes the city manager and city attorney to sit down with Cal Fire officials to review numbers.

By removing Cal Fire, some city leaders think it would be a cost-saving measure that wouldn't bring a debilitating blow to public safety.

Joe Rivero said when the city began using Cal Fire in 2008, it was thought that the move would bring a savings to the city, but those savings never materialized.

However, budget numbers from Cal Fire show they've come in below projected costs every year since the contract was written out.

After much back-and-forth between Cal Fire and Joe Rivero over budget numbers and costs, Mooneyham said there's too little information to make such an important decision.

"I think it's kind of insulting to say that after one pass, we have enough information to make this kind of decision. This is important stuff, and quite honestly, I think it's irresponsible of us as a body to proceed with this kind of information," he said, drawing applause from the audience.

The vote to send a letter of termination to Cal Fire was made only 29 days after the topic was first brought up during a November council meeting, Mooneyham said.

"Here's a number for you -- 29 days," he said. "That is how long we discussed this item for -- 29 days. It takes us longer to decide on a city award policy. It's taken us six months to get our car allowance on the agenda, and we're going to decide on a very important aspect of public safety in 29 days."

The move was made in haste, Mooneyham added.

"We do not have a plan," he said. "We just got numbers yesterday on what it would take to start our own fire department. We do not have a plan -- just so everyone knows that."

The city can still negotiate with Cal Fire to extend services in the city, but if they decide to move forward with a city-run department, Cal Fire will leave the city in June 2012 -- a date that came as a surprise to city leaders, who thought they'd have a year as specified in the contract.

Nancy Koerperich, fire chief for Atwater and Cal Fire unit chief for the Madera-Mariposa-Merced unit, said she requested direction from the city when the Cal Fire contract ended in June of this year, but never got a response, giving the city six more months to either start its own fire department, or make another commitment to Cal Fire.

Koerperich said she sent a letter to the city manager detailing the request, a letter that City Manager Kathy Kivley claims she never received, adding that the issue is still "up in the air."

Cal Fire has garnered support from many citizens, as well as the Atwater Police Officers Association.

Bill Novetzke, president of the association, said after the APOA gave several monetary concessions in the past year to ease the city's budget, he's worried that bringing back a city-run fire department could strain the budget and end up in more cuts to his organization.

Novetzke was also concerned that a less-experienced city fire department could weaken public safety.

City officials will revisit the budget in February during the mid-year review.

The Cal Fire situation is expected to resurface on or before the Jan. 9 Atwater City Council meeting.

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