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Voter Guide: Raising Menlo Park fire district's spending limit

Should the district's annual spending limit be raised from $40 million to $50 million?

Measure Y on ballots in the Menlo Park Fire Protection District will ask voters to raise the district's annual appropriation limit to $50 million a year, from the current $40 million. The new limit would run for four years starting July 1, 2016.

The district encompasses Atherton, East Palo Alto and unincorporated areas, in addition to Menlo Park.

Raising the limit would not increase taxes. If the measure doesn't pass, the limit would drop to $28 million because the $40 million limit expires June 30, 2016. The district currently spends $36 million a year, fire board chair Virginia Chang Kiraly said.

The $28 million limit, she said, was set in 1978 in the wake of Proposition 13 and "does not take into account inflation or cost of living increases."

Budget projections show district spending will reach or surpass $40 million in about two years, she said.

She pointed to rising challenges and costs for continuing and enhancing emergency services. For instance, in September, the fire board committed to splitting with the town of Atherton the $330,000 cost to install a stoplight at on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue. The light would be activated by pedestrians or emergency vehicles.

Higher costs may also be associated with handling emergency response on increasingly traffic-clogged street, said Fire Chief Harold Schpelhouman.

In September, the fire board adopted time-based performance measures for emergency response. The gridlock that characterizes rush hour in Menlo Park, particularly along Willow Road, is causing emergency responders to cut through Palo Alto's streets or drive on the opposite side of the road to meet their goals, he said.

To deal with the challenges, he said, the district may increase spending to build new fire stations, expand and renovate old ones, and increase equipment and personnel.

Linda Craig, former chief administrative officer for Portola Valley, had expressed concern that the proposed increase in the appropriations limit seemed premature, but said, "If they are in fact close to the limit, then I won't quibble with that." 

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