Atherton: Higher fees raise big-picture questions


Advertising an event with a big banner sign at the intersection of Marsh and Middlefield roads is going to get a lot more costly.

The signs, which promote things like ice cream socials at the library and lacrosse camps at Holbrook-Palmer Park, cost the city nearly $400 to erect. Under a new master fee schedule for the town of Atherton, the cost of this free service is going to get passed along to the advertising organization, to the tune of $387.

"If that's what it costs us and we can find someone to charge it to, we should do it," said Councilman Jim Dobbie at a special council meeting held July 28.

The master fee schedule covers everything from building permits to renting the park pavilion for wedding receptions, and the City Council has been mulling over changes proposed by consultants NBS for the past couple of months.

While the setting of fees may seem a banal exercise on its surface, the task has brought up a number of bigger issues, such as whether to stop renting out park facilities for weddings, whether the town should absorb the cost of informing the public about building projects, and whether nonprofit groups should be asked to pay for those big banner signs at Marsh and Middlefield roads.

The use of Holbrook-Palmer, the town's only public park, is still up for debate. Renting out its facilities for weddings helps pay for the park's upkeep, but it also hampers residents' use of the rest of the park. "There's definitely an impact on residents, especially on weekends, with all those weddings," said Councilman Dobbie. "If we shut them down, the park would be nice for residents. I'd like the park to remain a nice place for residents."

However, shutting down the events doesn't pencil out very well for the town. Public Works Director Duncan Jones told the council that the park currently costs $316,570 annually to maintain, about $40,000 more than it brings in. With proposed increases in the fee schedule, the park's annual revenue is projected to rise from $276,400 to $353,400, which would more than cover the annual cost of running the park, said Mr. Jones.

The numbers didn't work out as well when staff looked at discontinuing weddings and events, but keeping recreation classes at the park. The cost of running the park, which includes hiring temporary workers to staff the events, would drop, but not by enough.

Mr. Jones said recreation classes would bring in only $15,000 a year in revenue, but it would still cost the town more than $160,000 a year to maintain the park. Discontinuing all park programs would lower park maintenance costs dramatically, but bring in no revenue, so the annual cost to the town would be $48,802, according to Mr. Jones.

The council said to go ahead with the higher fees, but promised to revisit the idea of eliminating wedding and event rentals at a future meeting.

As for the big banners at Marsh and Middlefield roads, the council said they'd give City Manager Jerry Gruber authority to consider waiving or reducing the $387 charge for nonprofit groups. Mr. Gruber told the council that he was the driving force for charging the fee, since installing the banners not only takes two public works employees away from other duties. There's also the liability associated with having them climb on ladders to hang the thing. "Our public works people's time is more valuable than ever," Mr. Gruber said.

While many of the fees aim for 100 percent cost recovery for the town, there are some expenses that just can't be passed along — sifting through documents in response to public records requests, for example.

The council also said it was appropriate for the town to pick up the cost of public education and customer assistance on building projects. With those costs shouldered by the town, cost recovery on building department fees would be 79 percent.


Like this comment
Posted by wondering
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 20, 2009 at 10:17 am

Does the rather odd remark at the near end of this article concerning Public Records requests reflect in some way , the Almanac's frustration in it's effort to obtain Town documents??-- or will the concept of ECONOMY--become a new reason for skimpy reporting on Atherton???

Like this comment
Posted by beebo
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Aug 20, 2009 at 12:26 pm

$400 to erect a banner at Marsh and Middlefield? Come on!
Oh I get it. First they call the "union" sign erection agency. $100 ka-ching! Then they send out a union sign placement inspector with survey equipment, $100 ka-ching! Then the union sign erection scheduler ($40 ka-ching, ) schedules the union laborer to actually do the erecting. Then the actual sign erector appears to take the hour to erect the sign. $160 ka-ching!
Now my tax payer money saving idea is to have 2 unemployed teens who are looking for a job locally to hang the dang sign. Probably costs only $100 total. Couple of ladders and 2 orange vests and there you go! This is called Common Sense, which apparently we've lost track of.

Like this comment
Posted by R U Kidding
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 20, 2009 at 6:59 pm

I'd be happy to charge only $300 to hang the signs.

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