Atwater’s city offices have been closed on Fridays since 2011. That’s about to change

The city of Atwater recently adopted the 2019-20 budget and for the first time in nearly a decade expects to eliminate furloughs for employees on Fridays.

The city’s offices have only been open four days a week since 2011 when city leaders were looking for ways to cut spending as debt continued to collect. The adopted $52.5 million budget that ends furloughs has a general fund of $15.8 million.

Union representatives thanked the council this week on behalf of the employees who have faced the cut in pay for nearly a decade. City Manager Lori Waterman said employees will back to working on Fridays this week.

Leaders also predict they’ll be out of deficit spending by the end of the fiscal year. About two years ago, the city was still looking at a deficit of about $2.8 million.

“It’s very refreshing to see we’re passing a budget where we have no general fund deficit,” Councilmember Cindy Vierra said this week. “It’s a good feeling to know there has been positive progress.”

After eight years of deficit spending, the city projects a positive balance of about $1.1 million in the general fund by the end of the fiscal year.

The budget also includes a permanent position for a full-time public works director. That position was filled this month with the hiring of Vernice Haddix. He’ll make $91,952 a year plus benefits.

The city’s books have been a mess for many years with the budget borrowing from its own water fund to try to maintain services through the deficit. The city walked up to the edge of bankruptcy in 2012.

An audit from May showed the city had made serious progress. The auditors reported no irregularities in how the city spends its money but stressed the need for leaders to continue to pay down its deficit.

Mayor Paul Creighton said the city lacked transparency because the budgets were drawn up annually with line items that were not specific enough. Under new policies, the General Services Department will do the bulk of purchasing.

“This is the best budget we’ve had — I’m not exaggerating — in 20-plus years,” he said. “You can read it and see where the money is going, how it gets there (and) how it’s being spent, instead of just bulk numbers.”

The new policies for tracking expenses should help cut down on wasteful spending, he said, and allow the city to have a healthier bank account.

The budget will also meet the council’s goal this year of putting at least $100,000 into city savings annually.

Waterman wrote in her budget message that city employees continue to look at ways to provide services while saving money. “All departments are spending with a purpose,” she wrote.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.