Measure H money accumulates in Atwater; committee met without notice

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 19, 2014 

— The voter-approved special tax to support public safety is approaching its seventh month of collections and the money amounts to a little more than $500,000, city officials said this week.

The half-million dollars is the total from July, August and September 2013. The money from the past three months hasn’t been forwarded to the city yet, officials said. Atwater residents began paying the tax in July.

As some residents spar over how the money should be spent, others are taking issue with an unannounced meeting held by the Measure H oversight committee.

Measure H, a half-cent tax hike for all transactions, passed with a 67.1 percent vote in March 2013.

As part of the new tax ordinance, City Manager and police Chief Frank Pietro established the five-member citizens’ oversight committee. The ordinance said the committee meetings would be subject to the Brown Act, which requires they be announced, open to the public and posted on the city’s website.

Pietro acknowledged the committee met late last year without posting the meeting, but said it was abruptly adjourned once the members realized the error.

“It was a mistake that we made,” Pietro said. “We forgot to agendize and post the meeting as required by the ordinance. We’re still in the learning stages of the ordinance, but that won’t happen again.”

Pietro said the meeting, which took place in November, lasted less than five minutes. It was the second meeting. The five members had gathered earlier in the year to introduce themselves and select a chairman.

Eric Lee, chairman of the oversight committee, adjourned the meeting after another member brought the problem to his attention. He agreed that the session lasted less than five minutes.

“I said we are not going to take any chances or compromise the integrity of the committee,” said Lee, 62. “It was not a violation of the Brown Act because it was an honest mistake. We weren’t hiding anything. We stopped everything right away because we want to make this transparent.”

The next committee meeting, scheduled for the first week of February, is to be posted on the city’s website and open to the public. The minutes from the meeting are to be published.

Pietro said he selected the five committee members and five alternates from a pool of 11 applicants.

The oversight committee doesn’t have the power to determine how to spend Measure H money, but members can make recommendations to the City Council. Some residents say the money should be used to hire more police officers. Others believe it should pay to replace old equipment.

“We’re sending officers out into the street that don’t have the armor they should or have expired safety vests,” Lee said. “I don’t care if there are 15 extra officers on the street. If they’re not equipped properly, they’re exposed.”

Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol sees it differently.

“I think it’s more important to have police officers with boots on the ground directly addressing crime in our city,” Warchol said. “Right now, I believe Atwater has less officers than in past years. We have a tremendous amount of overtime for the officers, and it’s quite a burden on police officers when overtime is not a choice.”

Pietro said the department has 32 sworn officers, but two are on medical leave. He said 39 officers would be ideal for Atwater, but replacing worn-out equipment comes first because of safety concerns.

“Before I bring any other officers into this agency I have to make sure the equipment is up to par,” he said, adding that some police cruisers have more than 150,000 miles on them. The City Council in November approved four-year lease agreements for five new patrol vehicles to the tune of $63,600.

Pietro said the cost of leasing the vehicles will be paid with Measure H funds. The tax is estimated to bring in about $1.9 million by the end of the year, an increase from a projected $1.6 million.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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