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Atherton: Parcel tax opponents miss deadline

Original post made on Aug 23, 2013

There will be no ballot argument against Atherton's parcel tax renewal measure in November -- but not for lack of trying on the part of several civic-minded residents, including former mayor Kathy McKeithen, who want assurances that tax proceeds won't enable the town to overpay its police officers.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, August 23, 2013, 4:30 PM

Comments (34)

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Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 23, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Jon Buckheit is a registered user.

For the record, here is the full text of the rebuttal we submitted. I disagree that Ms. DellaSanta's conclusion is correct, and the council can always authorize this rebuttal to be printed (though sadly I doubt they will). Healthy debate over an issue can only help the democratic process.

Text follows:

The most important duty of a city council is to serve as a faithful steward of taxpayer money. This council has not demonstrated this quality; it is not entitled to ask for passage of a parcel tax at this time.

The police department accounts for over half Atherton's budget, and is the stated reason for the necessity of the parcel tax. The council has refused to consider or discuss outsourcing to save tax money. Whether one is for or against police outsourcing, there is no excuse for Atherton overpaying for police services.

Currently, Atherton pays not only the city's portion of an officer's pension contribution, but the officer's contribution also. It is well-known that pension costs in California have skyrocketed in recent years, and are a primary cause of California's budget deficit.

Various excuses have been generated for this practice, including the need to remain competitive in the police job market and to prevent job defections. These excuses ring hollow when examining Menlo Park's police compensation arrangement. The officers there not only pay their own pension contribution, but also a significant portion of the city's contribution.

Two of the current four council members have accepted police union endorsements and election funding, which raises concerns about their objectivity in the current police contract negotiations. The parcel tax should be defeated at this time, and reconsidered when this council demonstrates proper financial stewardship by taking responsible action so Atherton residents are not paying significantly higher police costs than neighboring communities.


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Posted by Jason
a resident of another community
on Aug 23, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Healthy debate? Democratic process? Well I'm all for the debate portion, but as far as democratic process, how about the fact that parts of that process include the rules and the deadlines for submitting things. Anyways, posting a rebuttal online seems like the next logical thing to do to express an opinion but I don't think disagreeing with an official that follows the process has any place in it.


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Posted by 4sure
a resident of another community
on Aug 23, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Disagreeing with the actions of govt officials has no place in a democracy.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 23, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Ballot arguments in favor of and against ballot measures are provided by the proponents and opponents of a ballot measure. Rebuttal arguments may be submitted by these parties in response to the ballot arguments."

It seems clear that if a party did not submit an argument against the ballot measure that they have no standing - " Rebuttal arguments may be submitted by THESE parties" - to submit a rebuttal argument.


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Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Jon Buckheit is a registered user.

@Jason: although I disagree with the official's decision, I have not questioned her integrity or motivations.

@Peter: The town solicited rebuttals through an e-mail. It is now taking the view that only original authors may rebut (in this case, the council is the only original author), and acknowledges the law also provides that an original author may grant permission for others to rebut. The town is maintaining that the permission must be secured by the deadline to submit the rebuttal (though the actual statute – look it up – decidedly does not state this), but it was impossible to obtain council permission during that time window from last Thursday to yesterday since the council meeting was cancelled. The town is refusing to ask for council permission now. Thus, the whole situation is less than clear, at least to me.


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Posted by Bill
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 7:23 am

Some thoughts on the issue:

1. How much money are we talking about?
2. Why can't the current council advise the residents of what they are offering the police?
3. Have they already decided not to reduce pension contributions in the new contract?
4. I would think the current four council members want the Parcel Tax passed and behind them so they know if they can even have a contract with the police. They should be smart enough to tell the residents their position on pension reform.






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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 7:49 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Can someone please post the existing 'pro' argument.

Thanks


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Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 24, 2013 at 8:39 am

Jon Buckheit is a registered user.

@Peter: I've seen this, but can't find a copy. Hopefully someone else can.

@Bill: I think you've hit the nail on the head. There has been a surprising lack of candor about these issues compared to the other cities we read about in the paper that openly discuss pension reform. This may lead to a conclusion that the council thinks the tax is less likely to pass if they are open about their plans.

To his credit, the city manager did have a frank conversation with me yesterday about where things are probably going. To summarize:

Outsourcing: won't be discussed until next spring, but an acknowledgment that the council does have a duty to consider it. Another example of putting the horse behind the cart.

Pension reform: expect officers to start making their own pension contributions, but to receive a dollar-for-dollar increase in pay to make up for it. I'd call that relabeling rather than reform.

Compensation: he mounted a strong defense for paying Atherton officers well above the median (70th percentile).

So, I would expect police costs to be increasing, not decreasing as in other communities.


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Posted by Bill
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 9:02 am

Jon,

Thanks.

Yes I would think they would have campaigned on pension reform.

Did the city manager say what the difference was between the median and 70th percentile? Is it $2,000.00 a year or $20,000.00 a year?




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Posted by Bill
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 9:02 am

Jon,

Thanks.

Yes I would think they would have campaigned on pension reform.

Did the city manager say what the difference was between the median and 70th percentile? Is it $2,000.00 a year or $20,000.00 a year?




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Posted by Here it is
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 10:24 am

Here is the ballot argument in favor of the measure. It is signed by all 4 councilmembers:

"The parcel tax is not a new tax. It is a renewal of the Town's existing parcel tax which has been supported by the residents for the last 30+ years. As before, this tax will last four years and raises approximately $1.86M annually, equaling $7.5M over the four year term. The tax is about about $750 per household for most residential parcels.

All parcel tax revenue goes directly to the Town, while only 9% of regular property tax revenue is received by the Town. Parcel tax revenue will continue to be allocated as a budget supplement for our public safety and crime prevention services and also fund capital improvements for street, drainage and flood control projects which have often been ignored.

While it is true, that the Town's financial situation has improved over the last two years, the parcel tax remains a critical funding source for many pressing capital improvement projects while also helping to maintain our current police services and the critical 9-1-1 capabilities.

Atherton receives little sales tax revenue and has few other sources. Whenever possible, grants are obtained to help fund capital projects; however grants are scarce in this economic climate. The Town acts prudently with your money and has received clean Audits. The Town scrutinizes budget expenditures to reduce costs where appropriate including the elimination of our long term liabilities.

Without the parcel tax our current reserves, which are for future economic uncertainties and emergencies, would be depleted.

The parcel tax renewal requires a two-third's majority. Please renew the parcel tax so that your local government can continue to provide the safety, security, road repairs, drainage and flood control work necessary to maintain the quality of life we all enjoy.

Please vote Yes for Atherton."


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 10:26 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here is what the law states:
" 9317. (a) When an argument in favor and an argument against a
measure have been selected for publication in the voter information
pamphlet the elections official responsible for conducting the
election shall send copies of the argument in favor of the measure to
the authors of the argument against the measure and copies of the
arguments against the measure to the authors of the argument in
favor. The authors may prepare and submit rebuttal arguments not
exceeding 250 words, or may authorize in writing any other person or
persons to prepare, submit, or sign the rebuttal argument. The
rebuttal arguments shall be submitted to the elections official
conducting the election no later than a date designated by the
elections official."

It sure seems that to be a rebutter of the argument against the measure you have to have been an author of the argument in favor of the measure and to be a rebutter of the argument for the measure you have to been an author of the argument against the measure. There is a provision whereby "Authorization must be provided by the original author(s) of the primary argument(s)in favor of or against the specified
measure,when a different person(s)will prepare, submit or sign the rebuttal argument." but that appears only to allow authors of the argument for a measure to designates rebutters against that measure and authors of the argument against a measure to designate rebutters for the measure.
*************

In the absence of a rebuttal in the Voter's Pamphlet perhaps the Town Forum can provide a venue for this discussion.


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Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 24, 2013 at 11:00 am

Jon Buckheit is a registered user.

@Peter: The code section you quote does not apply to this situation as its prerequisite is that both an argument for and against were submitted.

The code section 9285 quoted in the article does. It clearly states: "The author or a majority of the authors of an argument relating to a city measure may prepare and submit a rebuttal argument or may authorize in writing ***any*** other person or persons to prepare,
submit, or sign the rebuttal argument."

I emphasized the word "any" since you seem to read a restriction into "any" that I don't. I believe the California legislature anticipated that city councils sponsoring ballot measures may want to allow rebuttals to enhance the democratic process. Until the council advanced its argument, there was nothing to rebut. That's the whole point.

The question to ask here is why won't the city council authorize a rebuttal? Is it because that might lead to them needing to actually elaborate on its statement that "The Town scrutinizes budget expenditures to reduce costs where appropriate"?

A rebuttal to this issue (and more importantly, what flows from that rebuttal) helps the voters in Atherton since it creates real issues to consider, debate, and will lead to a sharpening of the city council's duties to the taxpayers.

The town created a situation in which it was impossible to obtain this approval in the time period the town (not the 9285 code) states is required, since it canceled the council meeting on Wednesday night. Under the 9285 code, approval can still be garnered so both sides can be presented. What's stopping it?

@Bill: I don't know the answer to that question, but will ask.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Jon - The law, as I read it, does NOT allow authors of the argument FOR to authorize others to submit a rebuttal against the FOR argument but simply to authorize the authors of the FOR argument to authorize others to submit a rebuttal of the AGAINST argument.


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Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 24, 2013 at 11:27 am

Jon Buckheit is a registered user.

Ok, but that's not even the position Atherton is taking. Under your interpretation, no rebuttal is possible in this situation (only one FOR argument made), yet the town did send out an e-mail soliciting rebuttals.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

It might be helpful to having a discussion on the Parcel Tax renewal issue to post some facts (note that I have not yet taken a position for or against the renewal of this tax):

The Town's 2013/14 proposed budget shows: Revenues $10,814,475
of which $1,858,000 would be
from the Parcel Tax
Expenditures $10,450,968

The budget states:"Without this (Parcel Tax) revenue, the Town would be required to expend this amount from the Town's unallocated General Fund or Reserves to maintain current service levels in public safety and current funding levels within the Capital Projects budget."

The ballot argument states:"Without the parcel tax our current reserves, which are for future economic uncertainties and emergencies, would be depleted."

Here are the current reserve funds:
For FY 2013-2014, the Town's Reserves are:
15% Emergency Reserve - $1,567,645
20% Unassigned Reserve - $2,090,194
Building Contingency - $411,802

It is interesting that neither the budget or the ballot argument mention or consider the option of simply reducing expenditures to coincide with what the Town's revenues would be without the Parcel Tax renewal but rather commit to spending down the Town crucial revenues. This, in my mind, would be a very bad course of action.

Your thoughts?


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Posted by Bill
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Peter,

Some thoughts:

If the Parcel Tax fails, Capital Project spending would probably be reduced. After that very little is left, the council has been cutting expenditures since 2000. They even cut water in council chambers and coffee to staff.

They fired staff in Public Works and Building to reduce operating and pension costs. I would have to think that Lewis, Wiest, Dobbie, and Widmer have discussed Police Pensions and funding during closed sessions.








































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Posted by Be fiscally responsible
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Atherton balanced its budget without a parcel tax from the 1920s until about 10 to 15 years ago. This coincided with the explosion in public safety salaries and benefits.

As Peter pointed out the council would have you believe that the only knobs that can be turned are reduction of service, increase of taxes, or depletion of reserves. This is the express adoption of a union position.

How about we stop overpaying for what we already have?

Atherton has been compensating its cops so they make more than 70% of the cops in the bay area. On top of that there has been an unheard of benefit, that the employee pension contribution (as much as 10 to 20 % of salary) is paid by the town instead of the employee.

Now the city manager tells John that will go away, but be made up for with a salary increase so there is absolutely no concession there.

That's what happens when unions buy elections. Hopefully Atherton's voters will see through this and deny the parcel tax until this council wakes up and realizes it's unfair to have residents pay these outlandish perks.

And really, really poor form to try to silence the rebuttal. The smell factor on that is terrible.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

In 2014 the proposed budget shows $1,116,000 from the proposed Parcel Tax going to the police department.

The Police Services budget, including that $1,116,000 from the proposed Parcel Tax, for FY 2013-2014 is $5,577,474

The FY 2013-2014 Budget also shows an unallocated remaining General
Fund balance of $4,895,238.

If the $1,116,000 from the proposed Parcel Tax which goes to the Police Department there would still be over $3.7 M remaining in the General
Fund balance.

Why does Atherton need a Parcel Tax renewal? Or do I simply misunderstand the facts?

I would certainly support paying down the Town's huge unfunded pension liability but that is not being proposed.


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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

corrected copy:

In 2014 the proposed budget shows $1,116,000 from the proposed Parcel Tax going to the police department.

The Police Services budget, including that $1,116,000 from the proposed Parcel Tax, for FY 2013-2014 is $5,577,474

The FY 2013-2014 Budget also shows an unallocated remaining General
Fund balance of $4,895,238.

If the $1,116,000 from the proposed Parcel Tax which goes to the Police Department were funded from the unallocated remaining General
Fund balance of $4,895,238 then there would still be over $3.7 M remaining in the General Fund balance.

Why does Atherton need a Parcel Tax renewal? Or do I simply misunderstand the facts?

I would certainly support paying down the Town's huge unfunded pension liability but that is not being proposed.


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Posted by Bill
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Guessing on the math.

You want @ $5,000.00 pay cut, down to 50th percentile, and the employee picks up @$15,000.00 a year in pension funding.

That reduces cost by $400,000.00 a year. Am I in the ballpark?

Has anyone said this at a council meeting- either a council member or member of the public?

Seems like a worthwhile topic given what others cities have gone through.










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Posted by Jon Buckheit
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Jon Buckheit is a registered user.

Bill, great question, and that's the type of data-driven analysis Atherton needs (and in my view is required) to allow voters to make an informed decision. I think another big variable that affects costs and certainly unfunded liabilities is changing the 90% @ age 50 pension formula so many other cities have.

(My guess is your math is even a bit conservative).


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Posted by Bill
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Jon,

Thanks. I agree with you on the 90% at 50 being changed.

I just took a guess using @ $100,000.00 a year as salary.


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Posted by colleen anderson
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Aug 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Here is where from what I can tell 20% of your money last time went to. $230,000 went to a police officers pay out. I have asked why they settled over the years, but was never told any facts except what is in the Almanac. When I spend or give money I like to know the facts on where it is going, or gone. Keeping me in the dark I have never been comfortable with.

News - Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Atherton officials: Silence on settlement an oversight

by Andrea Gemmet

Atherton officials said that the failure to inform residents about a $230,000 pay-out to a former police officer was an oversight, and one that won't happen again.

In late October, the town reached a settlement with Pilar Ortiz-Buckley, a now-retired Atherton police officer, said her attorney John Bonagofsky. The $230,000 settlement ends the sexual harassment and disability discrimination lawsuit Ms. Ortiz-Buckley filed against the town and Atherton public works supervisor Troy Henderson.

While the settlement deal was finalized Nov. 19, information about it didn't become public until nearly a month later, when Mr. Bonagofsky posted information about it on attorney-rating Web site Avvo.com.

City Attorney Wynne Furth told The Almanac that the town is required only to respond to inquiries about multi-party settlements but is under no legal obligation to announce it.

"We have a new city manager, and a new city attorney and we simply need to give them instructions on what the council wants in the future," said Councilman Charles Marsala. "I think they did the right thing by following the letter of the law, but that's the minimum standard and our residents and our council expect things to be more transparent. I don't think it was anything malicious on their parts, but I think we can do better."

Peter Carpenter, the president of the Atherton Civic Interest League, said he was outraged at how the settlement was handled, and pointed out that it represents about 20 percent of Atherton's annual parcel tax revenue.

"Frankly, I think the town was morally derelict in the way that they have handled this," he said in an e-mail to The Almanac.

Mr. Marsala requested that the council discuss creating a policy on disclosure of information at next week's study session on the town's priorities for the coming year. The meeting is set for 9 a.m. Monday, Jan. 11.

"In hindsight, if you want to analyze it, obviously a press release should have been issued immediately from the city attorney or city manager," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis. "It was certainly not something that was an attempt to hide anything."

Councilman Jim Dobbie said the council should have made the announcement. "I think it was a mistake not to announce it," he said.

Council members were instructed not to discuss the settlement until it was finalized, but the council members reached for this story said they did not know precisely when that occurred.

Ms. Ortiz-Buckley and her attorney were first to sign the settlement, on Nov. 4, and Mr. Henderson was the last, on Nov. 19. City Manager Jerry Gruber signed on behalf of the town on Nov. 16.

Ms. Furth said she and the city manager executed the settlement as instructed and did not report back to the council when it was finalized.

Mr. Gruber said he didn't want to second-guess why Ms. Furth didn't inform the council when the settlement was finalized but said he was committed to making sure the council is kept informed in the future.

"I think we can do a better job of communicating with the public regarding settlements, absolutely," he said. "There's a commitment from my office that we will make every effort to make sure we're transparent at city hall."

The case was on a City Council closed session agenda on Oct. 19, just a few weeks before Atherton voters were asked to renew the town's special parcel tax in the Nov. 3 election. At that meeting, the council voted unanimously to authorize settlement negotiations, Ms. Furth told The Almanac on Jan. 4.

The $230,000 payment comes out of Atherton's general fund, and isn't covered by insurance, according to Mr. Gruber. The sum represents a sizable chunk of the town's annual revenue. In February, Atherton faced a $2 million revenue shortfall in its $10.6 million adopted budget and had to make a series of mid-year cuts.

Atherton now has employee practices liability insurance that would have covered the lawsuit settlement — after a $100,000 deductible — but apparently the town didn't elect to get that coverage in the past, said Assistant City Manager Eileen Wilkerson.

"It's a lot of money, and the only reason for the amount of money is that we believed it would cost even more money if (the lawsuit) went ahead," Mr. Dobbie said. "There's not any great guilt there, but legal fees are so high that if you keep going to court, it can get up to that amount of money very quickly."

Attorney Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, an expert on California's open meeting law known as the Brown Act, said that by staying quiet about the settlement, the town followed the letter of the law, but it's questionable whether officials had the spirit of the law in mind.

"The pending litigation exemption in the Brown Act is to permit agencies to discuss the merits and weaknesses of pending or existing litigation without having to reveal to the other litigants what the town's strategy is. Since the (Atherton) litigants were already involved in the settlement, everyone knows what's going on except for the public," Mr. Ewert said. "There really is no public benefit to sitting on it, other than not looking bad."

In her lawsuit, Ms. Ortiz-Buckley charged that public works supervisor Mr. Henderson subjected her to ongoing verbal sexual harassment. She filed a lawsuit against Mr. Henderson and the town in April 2009, alleging that Mr. Henderson's supervisors did nothing to curb his behavior, and that when she complained, she faced retaliation and was forced out of the police department.

A June 2008 incident in which Mr. Henderson allegedly lunged at her exacerbated her existing back injury, and the town failed to accommodate her disability, she said.

Mr. Henderson was prosecuted for misdemeanor assault and battery stemming from the June 2008 incident, but a jury found him not guilty in July 2009.


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Posted by Short sighted thinking
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 24, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Sure Bill, let's cut a police officer's salary by $20,000 a year so an Atherton resident can save $100 during that year in parcel taxes. Fortunately aside from this very small group of aggrieved residents each having their own vendetta against the police department the other 99.9% of Atherton residents realize what a poor tradeoff that would be. If the opponents channeled their energies into actually doing something good for the town rather than causing trouble on a regular basis, we would all be better off.


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Posted by tsk, tsk, tsk...
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 25, 2013 at 10:39 am

Isn't the article about not submitting a rebuttal in time? "There will be no ballot argument against Atherton's parcel tax renewal measure in November"

Seems like the popular kids in the supposed Personal Responsibility crowd stayed out late partying instead of doing their homework.

"The deadline to submit arguments for or against the measure was Aug. 16, ... The opponents submitted their argument on Aug. 22."

tsk, tsk, tsk... better luck next time.


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Posted by Be fiscally responsible
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Maybe Short sighted thinking supports giving each police officer a $50,000 per year raise, as that would only cost an Atherton household another $250 per year? Would certainly make them happier, less "aggrieved" and in APOA candidate Rick Degolia's words, "help Atherton maintain their close, cooperative relationship with the police", and an Atherton household can certainly afford $250 per year.

Where to draw the line?

An Atherton household should be able to buy a loaf of bread, or pay for an electrician to fix an outlet, or pay for a policeman, at the same rate as any other neighboring community.

This is Bill's proposal and I like it

And I think Short sighted thinking has vastly underestimated the per household savings of Bill's proposal. Far more than $100 a year.


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Posted by Lionel
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 25, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Just wondering. Do the police get pain enough to live in the Atherton community they are hired to protect and serve?


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm

"An Atherton household should be able to buy a loaf of bread, or pay for an electrician to fix an outlet, or pay for a policeman, at the same rate as any other neighboring community."

Why? After all the residents have boat loads of money and should be willing to pay the APOA whatever they want to be paid. Never mind the fact the citizens of Atherton could get the same or better service for half the cost. But hey, your police department does stuff no self respecting real police department would do. I get it. You want "boutique policing." If that's what you want I guess you should expect to pay through the nose for your over paid security guards, er, police department.


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 25, 2013 at 6:41 pm

[Post removed. Personal information about one officer is irrelevant to the issue of whether the police are overpaid.]


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Posted by colleen anderson
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 26, 2013 at 10:29 am

[Post removed. Personal information about one officer is irrelevant to the issue of whether the police are overpaid.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm

[Post removed. Personal information about one officer is irrelevant to the issue of whether the police are overpaid.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Robert Cronin
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I have enjoyed the spectacle of residents of one of the most affluent communities in the country arguing over $750.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 26, 2013 at 1:09 pm

What an interesting town; last year they spent $500,000.00 on a Library in the Park concept that was shut down by the residents.


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