Atherton's City Council has agreed to move toward a study of how much Atherton property owners pay for services provided to them by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and how much those services cost the district.
At the conclusion of a Wednesday, Sept. 7, study session, council members asked City Manager George Rodericks to come back to them in October with a description of what the town would want a consultant to do. In the meantime, two council members, Cary Wiest and Mike Lempres, will meet with fire district officials to discuss the issue.
Mayor Elizabeth Lewis missed the meeting, and no one from the fire district was in attendance.
All the council members and Mr. Rodericks said they believe Atherton receives great service from the fire district.
"The fire district is providing us with exceptional service," said council member Bill Widmer. However, he said, the town has been unable to get answers to some of its questions about the fire district's costs of providing services to the town and the amount of revenue it receives from the town.
"I have lots of questions with regards to the services and the costs," Mr. Widmer said. "How the money is being spent? Is it being spent in the right manner and on the right things?" he asked.
Councilman Wiest, who is the council's liaison to the fire district, said he was "extremely disappointed ... that not one member of the fire district chose to be in attendance today." District officials said they all had previous obligations at the time of the meeting, Mr. Rodericks said.
Mr. Wiest said he was also disappointed with some of the feedback from district officials after Atherton announced it was going to hold the study session. "I'm disappointed with all the mud-slinging that has occurred," he said. "It's difficult to determine what's true and what's not – there's so much crap on the wall."
"The cost for service is a simple question and it's something we've brought up with the fire service for years," Mr. Wiest said. "To me, it's a pretty simple request."
"I don't understand, if there aren't any issues, why there's a reluctance by district to simply sit down and provide the information," he said.
Councilman Rick DeGolia said that tax records show Atherton properties have an assessed valuation of $8.06 billion, a little more than 32 percent of the fire district's entire $25.03 billion assessed valuation. But Atherton residents are just 7.6 percent of the total population in the fire district, which includes Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and some adjacent unincorporated areas, as well as Atherton.
The fire district provides fire, emergency response and emergency medical services to those areas.
Like several of the other council members, Mr. DeGolia said that he felt that some of the comments made by fire district officials were "just extremely immature and a direct attack on the council."
"I feel personally insulted," he added.
Fire board member Peter Carpenter had accused the town of looking at the fire district's finances as a way to try to get money to pay for its new civic center. He wrote on the Almanac's Town Square forum that Atherton's city manager had decided the fire district "is where the money we need is and they won't just give it to us so let's see if we can intimidate them with a public hearing and then blackmail them into 'sharing their tax revenue with the Town.'"
Mr. DeGolia said there is no issue that the council has been more responsible about than the management of the town's fiscal affairs. "We look at every dollar," he said.
The staff report on the issue from Mr. Rodericks says that in 2015, based on the assessed valuation of properties in Atherton, the fire district received $4.5 million more in property tax revenues from Atherton landowners than the town did: $13.8 million for the fire district versus $9.3 million for the town.
At the meeting Mr. Rodericks said the fire district believes that number, based on studies it has had conducted, should be $11.8 million, a figure "we're seeking to verify," he said.
His report says that, according to the county assessor's office, of every property tax dollar paid by Atherton landowners, the fire district receives slightly less than 16 cents while the town receives slightly less than 11 cents.
Atherton property owners also pay a parcel tax for town services.
The funding levels are a legacy of Proposition 13, passed by California voters in 1978. The following year the state Legislature set the property tax allocations for various government entities at the percentage they had received the year before.
Mr. Rodericks report said that if consultants find the cost to provide fire services to the town is considerably less than the amount of property tax revenue collected by the fire district, the town could "discuss alternative fire service models which could include, but not be limited to, detachment from the Fire District."
Council members said that any such discussion would have to wait until after a study came back with the financial information they want.
"It's not an issue of trying to detach from the fire department. I have zero interest in detaching from the fire department," Mr. DeGolia said.
Service is also not an issue, he said. "The issue is, where are our tax dollars going?" he said.
The staff report suggests the town could ask the fire district to share tax revenue, offer additional services or offer more "fire-related infrastructure."
The town had earlier asked the fire district if it might be willing to help pay for an emergency operations center or other facilities that could be used by the district in the civic center now being designed, but the fire district declined to participate.
"I think it's a good idea to gather information," said Councilman Lempres. "I think it's very important that fire district and the town of Atherton are operating on the same facts. And then we can have a conversation about what the next steps are."
In the years since the model for allocating property tax money was set up, the world has changed, he said. "It's well past time that we look at that formula and say: Is that still right? Is that a fair and equitable formula we should be using?"
The town should "not be in any way apologetic for asking these questions," Mr. Lempres said.
The staff report says that a consultant could be hired by the end of the year and return with a report by summer 2017. The estimated cost of the study is $35,000 to $50,000.