The Atherton City Council has made known its concerns about possible inequities between funding for town operations and funding for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which provides firefighting and emergency response services. The fire district board has now weighed in.
After a Sept. 20 discussion of about 30 minutes on Atherton's concerns, including a claim by the city manager that the fire district gets a nickel more of each property tax dollar than the town does, the fire board agreed to the idea of officials from the two jurisdictions meeting occasionally to discuss "mutual issues and concerns," as a staff report from Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman put it.
The board discussion had none of the sparks that board member Peter Carpenter had kicked up with his online comments on the Almanac's Town Square forum, including that Atherton's City Manager George Rodericks had told the mayor that 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. Rodericks attended the fire board meeting, as did Atherton Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and Atherton Councilman Cary Weist. Not present was Councilman Rick DeGolia, who described some comments by fire district officials as "extremely immature and a direct attack on the council," adding that he felt personally insulted.
"I would like to apologize to the officials in Atherton for not speaking up about this (funding issue) earlier," fire board member Chuck Bernstein said. He took pains to address possible misrepresentations in the press that the entire board had taken a position, adding that he did not share any of the sentiments represented, whether reported accurately or not. "All the cowards kind of tend to say nothing, and I was one of those, so I apologize to you," he said.
Mr. Bernstein said he saw an inquiry into efficient use of tax money as, "at heart, a worthwhile thing to do," but added that trying to get one's money's worth from taxes is "kind of a quixotic quest at best. I mean, when do we ever get our money's worth from our taxes?" He said he would support any study on quality and delivery of services.
Mr. Bernstein noted that Stanford Weekend Acres pays no property taxes for fire district services. "I haven't thought that was fair, but for some reason, in the fire services this idea of giving away some things for free is one of the norms," he said. Compensation and benefits to firefighters that "exceed community norms" are also inequitable, he said, and a discussion about equity is worth having.
Under state law, Mr. Carpenter said, "oversight authority for this fire district is the sole responsibility of this elected board. No other political entity or organization has legal oversight responsibility." As for distribution of tax revenues, that issue was decided by voters in statewide property tax propositions, and is not in the bailiwick of the fire district board, he said.
Board member Virginia Chang-Kiraly said that "if there is contentious verbiage thrown at each other, that does not help the cause to represent the residents that we have sworn to represent." The board and the City Council should be meeting, she said, adding that Chief Schapelhouman's relationship with Town Manager Rodericks is "good ... but could be better."
"I think overall, we need to have a – and I hate to use this word – more adult relationship," she said.