Almanac

News - July 24, 2013

Atherton parcel tax renewal heads for ballot

by Renee Batti

With the clock ticking on the lifespan of Atherton's current parcel tax, which raises about $1.86 million annual for police services and public works projects, the City Council voted on July 17 to ask voters to renew the tax for four more years.

The tax rate, the council decided, should not change, with one exception: Under the ordinance passed last week, the Menlo Circus Club's rate would rise 150 percent: from $10,000 to $25,000 a year.

The council voted to place the renewal measure on the November ballot, which will also include a race for the seat left open by the July 1 resignation of Jerry Carlson. The current tax expires at the end of June 2014.

The rate hike for the Circus Club was suggested by Councilman Jim Dobbie, and orally supported by Councilman Bill Widmer. After some post-meeting public criticism about the rate increase, particularly in light of its approval without public notice or discussion, Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said she is asking for a reconsideration of the tax measure at the council's Aug. 7 study session. City Attorney Bill Conners said the council can make changes to the measure it approved last week up to Aug. 9.

Under the existing tax, most property owners with a house on their land pay $750 annually per parcel, falling into the category of having a home on a parcel between half an acre and less than two acres. But there are a small number of homes on parcels under a half-acre, and owners of those parcels pay less.

Councilman Dobbie argued for a flat rate, a concept supported by Councilman Widmer. But a town-commissioned survey of likely voters indicated that residents are overwhelmingly supportive of renewing the tax, as is. The survey didn't seek opinions about a potential increase.

Mayor Lewis and Councilman Cary Wiest argued that trying to increase the rate, even for a small number of residents now paying below $750, might jeopardize the chances for the tax's renewal, an argument ultimately convincing Mr. Widmer to vote for the tax altered only to increase the Menlo Circus Club's annual rate.

Councilman Dobbie continued to argue for a flat rate of $750 for any parcel with a house on it. Although Mayor Lewis urged the council to back the measure unanimously, saying council members should be united in their support to boost the measure's chances for passing, Mr. Dobbie voted against it.

Split decision

Mr. Dobbie's vote appeared to stun a few people, including Mayor Lewis, who made the original motion to approve the tax renewal measure for the ballot with no changes to the rates. Following her motion, though, Councilman Widmer moved to amend it to include the tax rate hike for the Circus Club, with Mr. Dobbie seconding it.

After Mr. Dobbie cast his vote against the entire motion, Ms. Lewis urged him to reconsider, to no avail.

After the meeting, Mayor Lewis said her decision to support the Circus Club amendment was a "split decision," and that she was blindsided by the proposal to increase the tax to $25,000. But "I saw the opportunity to have unanimity" in the voting, she added.

In addition, she said, councilmen Dobbie's and Widmer's statements that the Circus Club's rate hadn't been raised in 20 years wasn't accurate. According to the city manager and city clerk, the annual rate had been increased from $3,825 to $10,000 in 2001, she said.

She is calling for reconsideration because "I don't think we discussed it enough."

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