Wednesday: Atherton looks at hefty budget surplus as assessed property values rise

Council starts review of budget at study session

Atherton's City Council will get its first look at the town's budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year during a study session on Wednesday, April 6. A staff report from Finance Director Robert Barron shows the town starting off with a surplus of nearly $7.5 million -- partly due to rising assessed property values -- in addition to a reserve fund of over $4.6 million.

The council will also look at a proposal from a resident to start a program to help older residents remain in Atherton. The meeting is a study session, starting at 3 p.m. in the town's council chambers, 94 Ashfield Road.

Assessed property values in Atherton have increased nearly 38 percent since the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The assessed valuation, which property taxes are based on, has gone up more than 9 percent a year every year except 2014-2015, when it went up only 6.5 percent.

Property taxes provide 67 percent of the town's general fund revenues the report says.

Mr. Barron says the rise in assessed valuation is about to slow down and should be in the 4 to 5 percent range for the next five years.

The town has some significant expenses, including for workers' compensation assessments, which Mr. Barron says could increase by 33 percent a year for the next five years -- from a projected $146,079 in 2016-17 to $461,220 in 2020-21 -- compensating for a number of recent claims the town has had. The town is part of a joint powers agreement with other local cities to self-fund workers' compensation claims, but it must reimburse the group for the cost of any claims.

City Manager George Rodericks said the town can avoid the large increase in annual operational costs by paying any money owed all at once instead of over the allowed five-year period, and by maintaining a fund reserve. Since 2012 the town has had four major and three minor workers compensation claims, all related to public safety employees injured in the field.

Another large expense is what the town must pay into the California Public Employers' Retirement System (CalPERS) over the coming years, to cover the retirement costs of its employees. That amount is about $550,000 this year but will be over $1 million in five years, Mr. Barron reports. The town's unfunded retirement liability was $9.2 million in 2014, he reported.

The proposed budget allocates $7.5 million to salaries and benefits, with $5.8 million of that going to the town's police department.

The town also has a number of capital improvement projects it needs to pay for, including drainage system repairs, work in Holbrook-Palmer Park, and improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The study session is just the first of five meetings on the budget. Other meetings are scheduled for May 4, May 18 and June 1 with the budget set to be adopted on June 15.

Aging in place program

The City Council will also hear from Atherton resident Steve Aber who wants to form an organization for Atherton seniors who want stay in the town, or "age in place." He has asked that his group become a town "designated group," which would allow it to use town facilities and pay only any direct costs incurred.

The 2010 federal census found that 22.6 percent of Atherton residents, or 1,562 people, were 65 or older. Of those seniors, 5.4 percent had income below the poverty line at that time, $10,458 a year.

The update to Atherton's state-mandated housing plan, approved in 2014, includes as goals "policies that enable seniors to 'age in place' as much as possible," and meeting other needs of its seniors.

Mr. Aber says his group would be called "Atherton Seniors Aging in Place (ASAP)". The group, he proposes, could hold regular meetings and help seniors with things such as transportation, technology and security. It could sponsor educational events and special interest groups such a gardening, cooking or book groups.

Other "designated groups" recognized by the town are the Holbrook-Palmer Park Foundation and the Friends of Holbrook-Palmer Park, the Friends of the Atherton Library, the Atherton Arts Foundation and Atherton Now, the group raising funds for the new civic center.

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