Atherton council votes to impose full parcel tax rate in coming fiscal year

Money needed for capital improvement projects, council members say

Each year, Atherton's City Council members must vote to set the rate on the parcel tax that town property owners have paid since 1978. And every year, council member Bill Widmer says, "I always hear from residents, why do you need to assess this?"

This year, however, Mr. Widmer said before casting his vote to set the parcel tax rate for the 2015-16 fiscal year at the maximum rate, not one constituent questioned the need for the tax.

That's because, he said, even though the town continues to improve its fiscal health, the parcel tax money has been wisely spent on capital projects, repairs and improvements to the town's road system and to its drainage system.

"We're starting to do things," Mr. Widmer said. "They're seeing changes." The lack of communications from disaffected residents, he said "is a testament, really, as to how we've pushed things forward and communicated as a council and a staff."

In recent years the town has approved master plans on the town's bicycle and pedestrian network, on its Holbrook-Palmer Park, and on its aging drainage system. In addition the town adopted a master plan for a new civic center.

The council voted unanimously to set the parcel tax at its maximum rate, which varies by parcel size and use. For homes on the average Atherton lot of between a half and two acres, the tax is $750 per year. The tax is as low as $225 for unimproved parcels between a quarter and half acre and as much as $10,000 for a private club.

The tax brings the town annual revenues of $1.86 million. Its proceeds can only be spent on the town's police services and on its roads and drainage system. The council allocated 20 percent of the tax proceeds, or $372,000, to the police department and 80 percent, or $1.44 million to capital improvement projects.

The current tax was approved in November 2013 and expires in 2018, meaning voters will need to reauthorize it for four more years next November if it is to continue. Unlike school parcel taxes, municipal parcel taxes are limited to four-year terms and must be approved in a general election.

Council members pointed out that they had put some thought into the parcel tax assessment.

"This is not a slam dunk decision to make, because we are sitting on a pretty healthy reserve," Councilman Mike Lempres said. "We've got a pretty good plan to spend it over the next five years" on capital improvements, he said. "There are projects that have been approved that have been stacked up and it will be spent in the future."

Councilman Rick DeGolia said some of the projects that the parcel tax will help fund in the coming year are important ones, including bike lanes on Middlefield Road that will be used by local students, and a study of making improvements to the Watkins Avenue railroad crossing that could allow it to be part of a quiet zone where train horns can't sound unless there is a hazard.

"We do have a healthy budget," Mr. DeGolia said. But the master plans approved by the council contain projects "that will have a major effect on our community."

Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said that unlike other taxes paid by Atherton residents, "every penny that the resident pays for that goes straight to us."

See the report on the parcel tax and the resolution adopting the assessment on the town's website.

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