Despite a letter from the fire district saying it doesn't plan to cooperate, Atherton's City Council on Wednesday night authorized getting proposals for a study of the Menlo Park Fire District's costs for serving Atherton and the revenues it generates from property taxes in the town.
City Manager George Rodericks said once the town receives the proposals, a contract will come to the council for approval, probably in January.
The council asked for bids from consultants on studying three items: the amount of property tax revenues generated in Atherton that goes to the fire district, both now and in the future; how much the fire district spends providing all its services to the town; and how much it would cost the town to provide its own fire services.
The council declined to add a fourth suggested study item, about what steps would be needed for the town to provide its own fire services. City Attorney Bill Conners said the item could easily be added on to a contract if the town wants to look into that issue later. Council members asked that each issue be priced separately, so they could choose to do parts of the study or break it into stages.
In the meantime, Menlo Park's City Council has the subject of joining Atherton in the study, and expanding it to cover Menlo Park, on the agenda of its Tuesday, Oct. 25 meeting.
A little history
It has been only a little more than two months since officials from Atherton and the fire district gathered at the district's sole fire station located within the town, on Almendral Avenue, to cheerfully celebrate the completion of a joint project. The town and fire district had split the cost to install a pedestrian-activated stop light on El Camino at Almendral. The fire district can remotely control the signal to make it easier for emergency vehicles to get in and out of the fire station.
That Aug. 17 celebration was before the town suggested it might want to take a close look at the fire district's finances.
Since then, there's been a flurry of sometimes heated exchanges between fire and town officials, and the relationship between the two has grown strained.
The letter addressed to Atherton Mayor Elizabeth Lewis, which was written by the fire district's attorney Lauren Quint, but signed by board president Rob Silano, said: " This communication is intended to make clear that the District has neither legal obligation nor any present intention to participate in the Town’s study."
On Tuesday night, as they discussed the letter to Atherton, fire board members expressed their frustration.
Fire board member Peter Carpenter, an Atherton resident who was the liaison between the district and the Town Council, asked the board to put someone else in the job.
"I would like to be relieved of my responsibility as liaison to the town of Atherton," he said. "I have been very outspoken on this issue and I will continue as a citizen of the town of Atherton to be outspoken on this issue."
Menlo Park resident Chuck Bernstein agreed to become the Atherton liaison, and sat in on the council meeting Wednesday night.
After shedding his liaison role, Mr. Carpenter proceeded to rip into the town for suggesting the fiscal study. "This is a blatant attempt by the town of Atherton to take property taxes which have been paid by the citizens of the fire district and appropriate those funds to the town of Atherton," he said. "They have no legal jurisdiction."
He said the town wants to "rob the resources" of East Palo Alto residents "in order to enrich the town of Atherton."
Does the town have jurisdiction?
On Wednesday night, Atherton council members asked City Attorney Bill Conners if the town has legal jurisdiction to spend money on a fiscal study of the fire district.
Mr. Conners said the matter is not unlike when the town has studied El Camino Real, which as a state highway is controlled by the California Department of Transportation. "Our constituents are paying money into a fund. Can we look at how those funds are being used?" Mr. Conners asked. "We can look at this and we can spend taxpayer money on this because it ultimately benefits the residents."
Mr. Silano, the fire board president, said Atherton officials claim that residents want to know about the costs of their fire services. "I'd like to contact these people from Atherton that think that we're not providing the services," he said, asking Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman to get a list of anyone who has complained from the Atherton city manager.
"I think it is a fiction that there is a group of Atherton residents who think this is an issue," said Mr. Carpenter. "They don't have any complaints."
Fire board member Virginia Chang-Kiraly said she has received calls from several Atherton residents who "think it would be a waste of money" to do a study. "There's nothing the town can do about the property tax allocation," she said.
No members of the public spoke on the issue at either meeting.
"Uncommonwealth of Atherton"?
Mr. Carpenter said the whole issue is also a waste of fire district time. "I would hate to know how many hours the chief, and legal counsel, and other people, have spent on the mischief that's been created by the town manager and a couple of council members," he said.
"What they're trying to do is create the 'Uncommonwealth of Atherton' that is a stand-alone entity. Next thing you know they're going to create their own trade agreements with adjacent jurisdictions, they're going to have their own air force, their own navy, their own army," he said. "The 'Uncommonwealth of Atherton' is an obscene construction."
No representatives of the town were at the fire board meeting, but at their Oct. 19 meeting, council members knew tempers had been flaring.
"I'm disappointed with the reaction to the questions," the town has asked about the fire district finances, council member Bill Widmer said. "I hope we can mend that and we can work together."
The fire district is providing "a terrific service" to the town, he said. "We want them to be empowered. We want them to be motivated to work with us."
Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said the council members "believe it's our fiduciary role as council members to address the issues that are before us for our residents."
"What we were requesting was open-handed and not subversive or any other agenda," she said. "They felt we were somehow attacking them or somehow setting it up so we could leave" the district, she said. "That's not what our intent is – our intent is to take a look and understand what the numbers are."
"We want to be friends and collaborators with the fire district," she added.
Watch a video of the fire board meeting here. The Atherton study item begins at 2:14:00.
Watch a video of the Atherton City Council here.The fire services fiscal review item starts at 1:34:45.