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Atherton Parcel Tax

Original post made by History Repeats, Atherton: other, on Apr 21, 2013

Once again the issue of renewing the Parcel Tax in Atherton is coming in the November election. History does repeat itself and the same discussions will take place as in the last three or four parcel elections. Several failures of the parcel tax have happened for various reasons but in the end it has passed for four year periods.

Nothing has changed, and it is clear the Town does not have the revenue to sustain all the services it provides. The lack of a sales tax dooms it to alternate revenue. Utility tax proposals and real estate transfer taxes are once again being considered by the Council by the consideration to turn Atherton into a Charter city. However that dog is unlikely to hunt. Demands that savings be made will again be made in government and the usual discussion of the cost of the Police Department, salaries, medical and pension cost etc. It is clear the city staff has been cut to the bone and the police are understaffed and the Town is faced with the need to be competitive for officer retention in a very competitive marketplace.
All these arguments have been made before in the last decade or more, and it still comes back to the reality of the need of approving a Parcel Tax and probably increasing it this time. Hopefully the Council will spend the time making the case to the residents.
An Almanac article from the past...

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 08, 2004

By John and Dianne "Didi" Fisher

Mayor Kathy McKeithen said in the press recently, "We have run out of options," after the failure of the Atherton parcel tax to win a two-thirds vote in the November election.

Now the Council has voted to put two new tax increases on the March ballot. One is an increase in home construction/remodeling fees (an increase of an existing tax on contractors) and the other is a tax on title insurance, due on sale of any property.

Is there an emergency? No way. Have we run out of options? Nuts! The town has had the parcel tax defeated before. After a thoughtful explanation to the residents of the need for the tax, it has always passed. This last fall, the council did remarkably little to remind residents of the level of town services, and why we need the parcel tax. That's why it failed to pass. But even with an indifferent selling effort, it won 57 percent of the vote.

There is plenty of time for the City Council and the Atherton electorate to do the right thing. Back in 2000, the parcel tax failed to win the required two-thirds. We had no tax the next year. The council did have to tighten spending, but reserves were not depleted. And the parcel tax was passed by a two-thirds majority and reinstated the next year. The current tax runs through this coming June. Town reserves have been increasing annually in recent years and are now over $5 million.

Are we trying to keep young people out of Atherton with all of these proposed increased levies on real estate? Should buyers and sellers have to pick up large fees for basic Atherton services? Shouldn't all of the people who enjoy services be paying for them?

Council member Jim Janz said, "this is the cost of admission" to living in Atherton. We don't think a toll gate at the city limits is the way to finance core town services.

"We desperately need this," says Mayor Kathy McKeithen, when speaking of the new tax proposals. We think this is an exaggeration.

Not even the rest of the council really believes that these proposals are the last chance. Council member Charles Marsala has asked to put renewal of the Atherton parcel tax on the council's agenda the week before the March election -- as a fail-safe measure.

Let's be fair. The council has a tough job. It stands between the staff's need to get paid, and the residents' right to be fairly taxed. And the council members get no pay for their voluntary labor. That's no reason that they should take the easy way out by proposing two new taxes, just because they are easier to pass.

As residents we deserve to understand the real alternatives and not be panicked into voting as if it's our last chance. If asked whether we're in any crisis and whether the proposed new taxes are the right things to do, we say "we don't think so." We'd rather vote bad taxes down in March, and do the right thing in June.

John and Dianne Fisher have each served on the City Council and as Mayor of Atherton.
The Atherton tax debate

Here's the Fishers' assessment of the pros and cons of Atherton's tax options:
The New Taxes -- Pros

** Such "fees" need only 50 percent voter passage (versus two-thirds for parcel or other special taxes). * No sunset date -- it's the tax that keeps on taxing. * No more campaigns for the parcel tax every four years -- less work for the council. * The tax increases with inflation of real estate and construction costs ... sound familiar? * The Parcel Tax -- Pros

** Accountability of the council for how the tax money is spent (re-authorized by residents every four years). * All residents pay their fair share (not just contractors and residents who sell their homes). * Income tax-deductible to the resident taxpayer. * Tax has a fixed dollar ceiling with a sunset date.
The New Taxes -- Cons

A 0.53 percent levy is added to a property's purchase price, as a title insurance tax ($15,900 for a $3 million property) that raises the property basis but is not deductible. * A 1.23 percent tax increase for construction projects ($12,300 in new taxes on $1 million project). * Reduces the City Council's accountability to the residents for both taxing and spending. * Creates two classes of Atherton residents -- those who pay because of real estate transactions or construction projects and those who get services -- for nothing. * No sunset provision (continues forever). * A tax on title insurance is a back-door ad-valorem (based on property value) tax, and may be illegal under California statute. Atherton could have to fight it out in court.
The Parcel Tax -- Cons * Periodic renewal requires work. * Fixed dollar amount limits flexibility to increase spending. * Supermajority vote (two-thirds of voters voting) is required by statute. * In other words, passage requires work. You need to run a campaign to inform residents.

Comments

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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 21, 2013 at 9:14 am

And the APOA is heard from yet again.


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Posted by History Repeats
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 21, 2013 at 9:41 am

Menlo Voter states "And the APOA is heard from yet again"

Menlo Voter is incorrect. I am a resident of Atherton and have nothing to do with the APOA.


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Posted by History shouldn't repeat
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 22, 2013 at 7:31 am

"It is clear that...the police are understaffed"

Why? Just because John Mattes said so in his letter? The facts are two officers for 7,000 residents is far more than San Francisco uses, which is about two officers for 50,000 residents.

"It is clear that...the Town is faced with the need to be competitive for officer retention in a very competitive marketplace."

Atherton is already uber competitive. It pays at the 70th percentile of surrounding communities. Unlike San Francisco, in which officers pay over 10% of their take home for their pension plan, San Jose, where officers pay about the same, and Santa Cruz, where officers pay over 20%, Atherton officers pay ZERO since their existing sweetheart deal with Atherton specifies Atherton make their retirement contribution (both Atherton's part, and the officers' part) for them.

What private company not only matches a 401(k), but pays your portion also?

I think it is galling for the APOA to send that letter out when their compensation is already so high.

I think it's going to be an incredibly hard sell to convince residents to pay a parcel tax, and, as you allude to, an increased parcel tax, when the APOA buys candidates who give them raises in an environment in which smart, well-read, residents know from the newspapers that public workers statewide and nation-wide are taking compensation hits after fifteen to twenty long years of dizzying compensation escalations.

I think it's going to be an incredibly hard sell because Mattes and the APOA won't be able to tell just one side of the story this time. There is organized opposition, and it will inform residents just how rich the existing compensation package is.

I think residents have to ask themselves the question, which will be posed to them, how did Atherton maintain its own police department for over 70 years in the absence of a parcel tax. There were no sales taxes back then either, since there were no businesses. The answer is clear. The insanely high pension and compensation increases started getting rolled in about twenty years ago.

The APOA wants residents to think it has to continue, since other cities are continuing it also. I'm sure the police unions in the other cities are saying the same thing. It has to stop somewhere. People are just too smart for this. They've worked too hard for their money.


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Posted by Right on
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 22, 2013 at 7:42 am

Remember, only one third of voting residents need to wake up to stop this insanity.


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Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 22, 2013 at 6:52 pm

History shouldn't repeat:

I'd love to agree with you that giving the Atherton Police a raise and raising the parcel tax will not happen because of a well educated and well read electorate. From what I have witnessed, this is unlikely. I have constantly been amazed at the total apathy of Atherton voters when it came to issues surrounding their police department. Even when some officers were clearly violating the rights of some of their citizens.

Don't hold your breath expecting a change. For some unknown reason Atherton residents are addicted to having their own police department. Even when they could contract with the county for police services and private security for the nonsense duties they ask of their police officers and save a couple million dollars a year.


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Posted by History shouldn't repeat
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 23, 2013 at 8:11 am

It's pretty simple to figure out. If Atherton cops didn't know they were getting a much better deal in Atherton than they could get anywhere else, they wouldn't be spending their own money to fight outsourcing the department.


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Posted by Council Candidates
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 23, 2013 at 8:41 am

Why does the APOA need to spend the money to fight outsourcing? Did any of last year's candidates favor outsourcing? Does anyone on the council favor outsourcing?


Posted by Greg Conlon, a resident of the Atherton: other neighborhood, 16 hours ago

This is my first posting on this response to Jerry Carlson's indicating retirement. I want to say that Jerry's hard work on the Rail Committee has been devoted to what he believes are the right answers for the Town. He also served on the Peninsula Community Coalition in an outstanding manner to represent Atherton with five other cities re High Speed Rail challenges.




Regarding Legacy's comments about my response to the Police Department's endorsement of the Lewis and Wiest, I did not change my mind on any point. The issue was whether I supported out sourcing the Police. I explained to all of Atherton with a voice mail that made clear I did not support outsourcing the Police unless the Town was up against an unexpected bankruptcy. It had nothing to do with the Police wage negotiations.


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Posted by History shouldn't repeat
a resident of Atherton: other
on Apr 23, 2013 at 9:35 am

Any responsible council member or candidate should always keep outsourcing on the table, even though it may not be the preferred choice. The responsible position is to say I'm in favor of keeping the police department IF we can get a reasonable and affordable contract in place. If not, of course we need to outsource.

There's nothing about that notion that doesn't make sense. If you take outsourcing off the table, the APOA has way too much leverage in negotiations.

The fact remains, the APOA vehemently opposes outsourcing since they can't get their sweetheart deal that exists in Atherton anywhere else. And, they complain about being underpaid at the same time! You've got to admire the audacity, at least.