The town has no commercial zoning, so Atherton residents should have learned by now that some expenses, like an extremely expensive police force, could not be funded without the parcel tax. And truth be told, given the assessments of most Atherton homes in today's overheated real estate market, many residents consider the $750 a year a bargain.
So when the City Council met to discuss renewing the tax and putting it before voters this November, it was not considered a controversial item. The council had to like the $1.86 million that the tax would raise for police services and public works, and during a July 17 meeting, agreed to put the issue before voters in November, when a replacement for departing council member Jerry Carlson will be selected. But there was a catch: The parcel tax rates agreed to that night would hit the Menlo Circus Club with a 150 percent increase, while rates for all other properties would remain the same. There was no advance notice to the Circus Club that its annual tax bill could shoot up from $10,000 to $25,000.
After failing to muster support from fellow council members to impose a flat tax on every parcel, including smaller lots, member Jim Dobbie suggested an increase for the Circus Club. When the council was ready to vote, Bill Widmer moved to increase the club's tax, convincing Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and member Cary Wiest to support the increase. After Circus Club supporters and other residents cried foul after the meeting, Ms. Lewis called for reconsideration, so there will be another vote on the tax at an Aug. 7 study session.
Given that the council must act before Aug. 9 to get something on the November ballot, which takes away the opportunity to hold a public hearing on the proposed increase, we strongly urge the council to back off and approve ballot language that will renew the current tax assessments. It simply is not fair or good policy to impose a 150 percent tax increase for the Circus Club without discussion and without notice to the club, when no other properties are facing an increase.
Passage or defeat of the parcel tax also will have a bearing on whether the town can continue to support the police department, whose officers are negotiating a new contract this year. If the tax is defeated, it would severely crimp the town's budget and its ability to fund police officer compensation at the current level, let alone a pay increase.
Mayor Lewis and Mr. Wiest, who were actively endorsed by the police officers association in the last election, almost certainly will move to drop the tax increase on the Circus Club to avoid having club members work against its passage. The big question is whether three of the four council members can agree to drop the Circus Club assessment. If neither Mr. Widmer nor Mr. Dobbie changes his mind, the parcel tax will go on the ballot with a $15,000 increase for the Circus Club in place. If the club's members rebel and work to defeat the tax, Atherton could find itself missing $1.86 million over the next four years.