News - September 23, 2009

Atherton: Proposed new fees unfair?

• Atherton seeks input from residents on fee schedule.

by Andrea Gemmet

Nobody said passing a new master fee schedule in Atherton would be easy — or particularly interesting.

Despite the fact that the proposed fees would affect everything from building permits to facility rentals at Holbrook-Palmer Park, the town's four public meetings on the topic were largely ignored by residents. But in the face of withering criticism by a single resident at the Sept. 16 meeting, the Atherton City Council decided to postpone a decision on the fee schedule and try once again to get some residents involved.

"I think we all agree that we'd like additional public input," said Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen at the meeting. "We had public meetings, but they were not attended by the public."

The council decided to postpone its decision until November, and have its consultant conduct one or more public meetings in the meantime.

The revised fees are intended to improve the town's cost recovery for services ranging from issuing permits for heritage tree removal to providing certified copies of documents. An exhaustive study of the town's fees was conducted by San Francisco-based consultant NBS.

Finance director Louise Ho estimated "modest" revenue gains of up to $150,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year if the new fee schedule was approved.

Atherton resident Carol Flaherty spoke at the Sept. 16 meeting, saying she hired her own attorney to review the proposed fees. As a result, she said, she discovered the town is trying to pass along too much of its indirect overhead costs.

"That is the fatal flaw in the NBS study," Ms. Flaherty told the council. "You're trying to recoup too much."

Ms. Flaherty and her husband are the owner-builders of several houses in Atherton. She offered a detailed analysis of the proposed fees associated with building projects, using her own current home-building project as an example.

Atherton calculates many of its building permit fees based on the assessed value of the construction using a per-square-foot multiplier. Over the years, that per-square-foot number has been raised, and there have been repeated complaints that it's too high, and that builders should be allowed to document the actual cost of construction and use that number instead.

"I don't care if you change it to $500 per square foot, as long as there's the caveat that (builders) can show what it cost and you give them a refund," Ms. Flaherty told the council.

But NBS consultant Jeanette Hahn told The Almanac that the purpose of coming up with a construction value isn't to determine the actual cost of a building, but to calculate the appropriate fees, consultant Jeanette Hahn of NBS told The Almanac.

"We're essentially trying to classify different sizes of projects, different scales of projects, into a fee structure that produces fees in an amount proportionate to the costs incurred by the town to review and inspect the project," Ms. Hahn said.

That's why the assessed construction value can vary so widely from town to town, and why other jurisdictions may use other methods entirely, she said.

"It's tough to say that, in any agency, the value a project assigned is reflective of the project cost," she said. "It's attempting to drop the project in the appropriate classification."


Posted by Lisa, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 22, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Is this a joke. I wanted to attend the meetings but since the meetings were on weekday mornings when most of the Atherton residents were at work I also was not able to make it. The meeting were called during the morning to work with Mrs. McKeithen's schedule not the residents schedule. In case people didn't know council member Kathy McKeithen works afternoons and evenings at Tuesday Mornings in Redwood City. I can see how this time schedule would allow more residents of Atherton to attend? I do not know of any other city or town around who hold public meetings during the morning if they truly want to get the publics feedback. This is a total smoke screen. Having evening meetings would allow more residents to attend but I guess that really isn't the plan is it Mrs. McKeithen.

Posted by Fiscally responsible, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 22, 2009 at 8:13 pm

In the midst of assessing a parcel tax to all residents (or at least attempting to), now the Atherton government wishes to assess additional fees to all residents for routine items such as permits, alarm signs, and the like. Meanwhile, Town Manager Jerry Gruber has been negotiating for months with the council for (what is a apparently a large) raise. Perhaps the additional fees are Mr. Gruber's way of explaining to the council that even with the additional salaries in this economic crisis, Atherton can still make ends meet.

The Council should represent the residents, not the Atherton employees, plain and simple. NO to additional fees, NO to parcel taxes, and NO to raises in this environment.

Posted by stewart salinger, a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 22, 2009 at 10:43 pm

When John Johns was Finance Director and Jim Robinson was City Manager the parcel tax passed with a margin of approval just over 80 percent.

With respect to Gruber. I say let the voters decide. If it passes by a wide margin, give him a healty raise and if it fails, show him the door.

Posted by Ed, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 23, 2009 at 12:12 am

Dear Lisa--Thankyou for pointing out that Kathy is the only one with a real job, Both Jim and Jerry are retired. Charles is available for comment at all times from his gym and Elizabeth commutes between home and PPG where she recieves her instructions. Hello to Randy

Posted by Charles Marsala, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Sep 23, 2009 at 8:26 am


Not sure who your sources are, but I am not in the gym at all times. I am there about an hour weekdays normally after 7pm and weekends before noon.

You suggest I do not work, which is not the case. I am working hard on my growing my company which you can visit at In the last year, I have added several lines and will launch a new site as we have expanded past wokbenches and toolboxes to 25,000 industrial supplies. The new site should be up by the end of the year.

Back to the issue of outreach to residents and my comments on that issue: The council should move away from Public Meetings during weekday mornings and afternoon to evening meetings which would allow more residents to be able to attend.



Posted by greenback, a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

Andrea Gemmet speaks of withering criticism from a developer. Bullying behavior would be a more accurate description.

The City Coouncil showed how little backbone it has when one person can browbeat them into submission.

As far as the consultant study is concerned, this is exactly the kind of thing city staff should be doing instead of wasting taxpayer money on.

Posted by annoyed, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Sep 23, 2009 at 2:54 pm

cut the self promotion charlie

Posted by Aaron, a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Sep 24, 2009 at 9:23 pm

why is it that the one guy who lives to bash the town of atherton can never have the guts to put his real name on any of these comments, yet he always uses the names of everyone else?

Posted by Quid Pro, a resident of Atherton: other
on Sep 25, 2009 at 12:06 am

Aaron--I can assure you that it's more than just one frustrated guy but any multiple name use is likely a means of avoiding targeted deletion--which dosen't work by the way cuz I've tried it myself.
I agree that there has been some tawdry stuff on this Atherton forum in the past but that dosen't mean it isn't completly or even largely truthful--similarly there has been plenty of well crafted innocent looking spin which I consider to be even less useful. I don't think the Almanac has the resources to do much investigating--this forum my be one the best tools it has for giving the truth a chance to get out and to save themseves alot of leg work. Whenever I've written anything it's really just me tying to get through to the Almanac hoping to get them to ask themselves some harder, fairly obvious, and unanswered questions before they demure

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.