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."