Atherton's City Council has given the go-ahead to a study of fire services in town, something that has soured the relationship between the town and Menlo Park Fire Protection District since it was first proposed in September.
The council voted unanimously April 19 for City Manager George Rodericks to negotiate a contract with Matrix Consulting Group, a management consulting firm based in Mountain View.
The study will look at the costs and benefits of its existing fire and emergency services provided by the fire district, and at other options for providing fire services to the town.
Although the president of the fire district's governing board, Peter Carpenter, had sent an email urging Atherton residents to protest the study, only one member of the public was at the meeting for the item. The town received two emails opposing the study, one of them from someone who does not live in the town or the fire district.
In an e-mail with the subject "A need for citizen outrage - note from Peter," Mr. Carpenter called the proposed study "nothing but a greedy and selfish attempt to take property tax revenues from the Fire District to pad the coffers of the Town."
"The net result of this effort would be to diminish the ability of our Fire District to respond to our less affluent neighbors in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto," he wrote. "This is a greedy and selfish proposal."
Mr. Carpenter later told the Almanac that he had written the email as a private citizen, not as president of the fire board, although the email does not state in what capacity he is writing.
But council members, especially council fire board liaison Cary Wiest, said the town needed the study so it would have the basic information to make knowledgeable decisions about fire and emergency service.
"This is one of the steps that we have to take," Mr. Wiest said.
Councilman Rick DeGolia expressed the only skepticism. "I hear the same comments that everybody else hears from our residents," he said. "The fire district's tax level is basically twice what (the town's) is. What will we get from (the study) I'm not really clear about it."
Mayor Mike Lempres said he had done some preliminary figuring based on information the fire district had given the town about the 2015-16 fiscal year. During that year, the fire district received $11.8 million in property tax revenues from Atherton and responded to 517 calls from the town. The calls ranged from 93 false alarms to 103 "general service" calls (such as for water, smoke, odor and animal problems) and eight fire calls.
"They're averaging $23,000 per call in Atherton which is a pretty astonishing number," Mr. Lempres said.
Councilman Bill Widmer asked for one change in the consultant's proposed work plan: to hold public meetings about the study after it has been completed, not before. The council approved that change.
The proposal from Matrix is for $49,500 and suggests looking at two fundamental questions:
• What are the costs, locally generated revenues, and benefits of service from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District?
• What is the financial and service feasibility of the town creating a municipal fire department?
To answer the first question, the consultants propose looking at what taxes and fees from Atherton residents go to the fire district, how much it costs the fire district to provide services to the town, and if the revenues exceed the costs.
To answer the second question, the consultants propose looking at options for providing fire service to the town, including a municipal fire department, contracting with another fire service or creating a joint powers agreement with other regional agencies.
The Matrix team who will be conducting the study includes two former fire chiefs and a project manager who has conducted more than 150 fire and emergency medical services reviews nationwide.
The proposal shows the study taking 14 weeks to complete.