Year in review: Fire district fights fires and controversies

Members of the Bay Area water rescue team sponsored by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District assist a man from his home in Wharton, Texas, on Aug. 31, after the Colorado River flooded. (Photo courtesy Menlo Park Fire Protection District)

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District has had a busy year, and not just in responding to fires and medical calls in the district or to disasters and emergencies elsewhere.

As the district worked on plans to upgrade its facilities and respond to the development boom in the area, there have been a number of controversies, including squabbles with Atherton, whose officials are questioning the costs of providing fire district services to the town.

In March, Belle Haven residents responded furiously to plans to rebuild the Chilco Street station that included displacing the residents of as many as three homes. The fire district backed off from that plan.

The more than 50 stories the Almanac ran about the fire district during the year included January revelations that the state controller's website shows the district's employees have among the highest average wages of any state or local agency.

The district was also in the news about bouts of infighting among fire board directors, more than $16 million in property purchases made during the year, the resignation and subsequent appointment of a director, and revelations about the share of local property taxes the district receives.

The district sent its firefighters across the country and around the state responding to fires, floods and hurricanes in 2017. During the year, the fire district sent 53 employees to assist with 11 California disaster incidents ranging from the Oroville Dam spill threat to floods and fires. The chief reported the district would be reimbursed for 6,967 hours of employee time. The district also sent its firefighters to respond to hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Employee pay

Early in 2017 the Almanac reported that, the state controller's office website, shows the average wages paid to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's employees have been in the top 10 of all state and local government agencies in California since the controller started posting the information in 2009.

In 2014 the district had the highest average wages (total compensation minus benefits) on the website. It fell to second in 2015, behind only a one-employee commission. In October, the controller's office showed the Menlo fire district again was in the number one spot, with average wages $23,000 higher than those of the No. 2 agency.

In April, the district's own numbers showed 12 people, including its chief, had total compensation of more than $300,000 in 2016. A battalion chief with $387,799 in total compensation was the district's top earner, while an engineer/paramedic was not far behind at $368,745.

Chief Harold Schapelhouman argued district employees deserve their high pay because their jobs are risky. "We get paid to do the dirty work," he said.

The chief said many firefighters earn a lot of overtime because they respond to disasters in other parts of the state or country. The district is reimbursed for much of those costs, which means that state and federal taxpayers, not just locals, help pay the district's employees.

Property tax share

Part of the reason the fire district can afford to pay its employees so well is that its property tax revenues have been steadily increasing.

Since Proposition 13 passed in 1978, the district -- like most other government entities -- has received the same percentage of local property tax revenues each year, regardless of need.

Figures from the San Mateo County Controller's Office show that during the 2015-16 fiscal year, the fire district received $41.1 million in property tax revenue, $11.8 million more than the combined total for the three cities it serves: Menlo Park ($14.1 million), East Palo Alto ($6.6 million) and Atherton ($8.6 million).

That means the fire district receives more in property tax revenues for providing emergency medical, fire and other services (hazardous waste spills and rescues among them) than the three municipalities combined receive for providing city services such as police, parks and recreation, streets, and land-use planning (plus the library and water service in Menlo Park). All the agencies also receive other revenues.

The district recently announced that San Mateo County estimates it will receive $42 million in property tax revenue in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Property purchases

The fire district went on a real estate shopping spree in 2017, spending more than $16 million.

In June, the district spent $4.6 million on a three-bedroom, two-bath home with a pool on a 0.9-acre lot wrapping around the Almendral Avenue fire station. The district says the property can be used when the district renovates the Almendral station in 20 to 30 years.

In the meantime, the district is trying to figure out what to do with the property. Renting the house, demolishing it, or using it to house district employees have all been contemplated. In December the board authorized spending $500,000 to renovate the property.

In September the district announced it had purchased a 28,000-square-foot warehouse on 1.37 acres on Pulgas Avenue in East Palo Alto for $5 million. In December the board authorized spending $500,000 to renovate the warehouse.

On Dec. 19 the district announced the purchase of an acre of St. Patrick's Seminary land next to its Middlefield Road fire station for $6.6 million. That station is scheduled to be rebuilt in mid-2018.

Also in December, the district announced it was negotiating to buy a three-bedroom, two-bath 2,050 square-foot-home on an approximately 6,000-square-foot lot. It is on Valparaiso Avenue in unincorporated West Menlo Park, next to the district's Alameda de las Pulgas station, which the district is scheduled to replace in 2022.

The home was not listed for sale, but Zillow estimated its value at $2.22 million.

Board infighting

In addition to public squabbles with Atherton, fire board directors had some significant public spats. At a Feb. 21 board meeting, Director Rob Silano and board President Peter Carpenter had a prolonged discussion over sending copies of a report the district had commissioned to the city managers in the cities and town the district covers.

"I don't want to solicit their input," Mr. Carpenter said about the report, which suggests possible future fire stations locations, "because it's not their decision to make."

"I'd like to know how they feel," Mr. Silano finally said, after doggedly repeating his request eight times.

"Feel free to ask them," was Mr. Carpenter's ultimate response.

At the end of the July 18 meeting, Director Virginia Chang Kiraly read a memo lashing out at Mr. Carpenter for excluding her from a meeting she had asked to have arranged with officials from San Mateo County and Atherton. She is the board's liaison to both entities. She also complained about public records requests Mr. Carpenter had made to Atherton.

"The fire board has not directed anyone from the fire district or fire board to submit" a Public Records Act request to Atherton, she said.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, Ms. Chang Kiraly and Director Chuck Bernstein said they could not vote that night to fill a board opening left when Director Rex Ianson resigned. The application process had been unfair and "lacked specificity without full board vetting; it was vetted by only one person and his puppet," Ms. Chang Kiraly said, referring to Mr. Carpenter and Director Rob Silano.

Moments after Ms. Chang Kiraly's comments, Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Silano voted to adjourn the meeting. The move came before the board had acted on a single agenda item, and only 35 minutes into the meeting. The meeting continued when the two other directors did not support adjournment.

On Oct. 2, a week after Ms. Chang Kiraly says Mr. Silano warned her to "watch out for Peter because he might come after" her, Mr. Carpenter emailed John Ullom of Half Moon Bay, an outspoken opponent of Ms. Chang Kiraly. Mr. Carpenter asked Mr. Ullom for an update on a complaint he'd made eight months earlier about Ms. Chang Kiraly serving simultaneously on the fire board and the board of the San Mateo County Harbor District.

After Mr. Ullom colorfully and publicly refused to cooperate with him, Mr. Carpenter began distributing copies of Mr. Ullom's eight-month old complaint via email. Mr. Ullom told the Almanac he had dropped the complaint about Ms. Chang Kiraly because someone involved in the effort had behaved inappropriately.

Belle Haven station

On March 21, more than 50 Belle Haven residents showed up at the fire board meeting to protest plans for expanding the Chilco Street fire station.

Speakers were especially angry the district had notified a neighborhood family that they were considering using eminent domain to acquire the Terminal Avenue home they had spent the last 10 years building.

Although the district had already spent nearly $100,000 drawing up plans and doing environmental studies on a new station, the district [later promised to consider a different location in the M-2 industrial area for a new station.

Board vacancy

Fire board director Rex Ianson announced on June 20 that he would be retiring to move to Oregon effective Aug. 31. The process of appointing a successor to Mr. Ianson took three meetings, however, and became contentious.

Seven candidates applied for the open position, and even after a five-hour meeting on Sept. 19, two board members (Ms. Chang Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein) said they did not have enough information to make the appointment.

On Oct. 17, after five rounds of voting, three of the four fire board members finally agreed on candidate Robert Jones. But before that vote, the board members had voted that whoever was chosen would have to go through a background check before formal appointment. So, the board met again on Oct. 25, after Mr. Jones had passed two background checks, and finally formally made the appointment.


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35 people like this
Posted by menlo parkresident
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Dec 29, 2017 at 3:44 pm

This summary is a perfect example why the towns who are affected by the totally out of control fiefdom and boondoggle run by Carpenter and the Fire Chief don't take a big hose to this overpaid, overpriced mess and clean out the barn.

32 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 29, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Note that the Fire District:
• Maintained acceptable emergency response times in spite of significant growth and
increasing traffic congestion and gridlock
• Maintained fiscal responsibility with a balanced budget, no parcel tax and with well funded
and carefully targeted reserves
• Achieved 98% resident satisfaction with the Fire District’s level of service
• Continued its multi-year station replacement plan using funded reserves
• Made strategic property acquisitions for critical fire station replacements using funded
• Deployed to 9 wildland fires, 2 floods and 3 hurricane incidents, almost all costs were
reimbursable and District employees gained invaluable experience while maintaining full
local coverage. (The firefighters received overtime pay which may be shown as “regular
pay” or salary in media reports which is a misrepresentation of the facts)
• Established national leadership in the adoption of new technologies, specifically Drones

No other local government can come close to those accomplishments.

The performance envy and lust for the the District's carefully conserved taxpayer revenues by other less well performing local entities cannot distort these facts.

50 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 29, 2017 at 5:21 pm

Brian is a registered user.


You forgot to mention a number of accomplishments:

* made the news with the exorbitant salaries and overtime paid to personnel

* Alienated a good portion of Belle Haven by trying to force longtime residents to sell their property to the Fire District for the expansion of a station

* Alienated (thanks to you) both Atherton and Menlo Park City Councils

* Bringing up the idea of limiting Public Record requests to the MPFPD while at the same time asking Atherton for huge amounts of information under the Public Records Act (the first request coming from you as the President of the MPFPD and later amended to you as a private citizen. Hypocrisy lives!

* Made the news for infighting on the board when you failed to invite a member of the board to a meeting she should have been part of and then attempting to stab her in the back by pushing a complaint filed by a third party. Nice team player

Shall we go on with the amazing accomplishments under your tenure as president?

"The performance envy and lust for the the District's carefully conserved taxpayer revenues by other less well performing local entities cannot distort these facts."

If you think paying personnel salaries and overtime as mentioned above and buying properties for $6+ million is preserving the tax payer money you are crazy.

14 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 29, 2017 at 5:27 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" buying properties for $6+ million is preserving the tax payer money you are crazy."

Crazy like a fox.

The properties were all bought at or below market prices with cash and without incurring any taxpayer debt or the use of a parcel tax.

All of the properties were purchased as part of the District's responsibility to continue to provide superb services to an ever expanding population.

8 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 29, 2017 at 5:35 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"" buying properties for $6+ million"

Brian - You are not paying attention, The total expenditure for these strategic property acquisitions was $16 million.

18 people like this
Posted by No Way to Run an Airline
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Dec 29, 2017 at 7:34 pm

No Way to Run an Airline is a registered user.

Observing that the Fire District is spending $40 million to run a $30 million operation is not envy and lust, it's common sense and good judgment.

16 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 30, 2017 at 9:20 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Airline - The Fire Board would welcome your specific suggestions as to how costs can be reduced without lowering the level of service.

Here are the budgets and the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports:

Web Link

And here is the contact information for the individual Fire Board members:

Web Link

30 people like this
Posted by Brian
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Dec 30, 2017 at 7:21 pm

Brian is a registered user.


I was referring to the single property in Atherton, but maybe you were not paying attention. As for fiscal responsibility the MPFPD is far from it. It is good you collect more money than the three cities you cover combined, it is easy to spend money when you are getting way too much of it. Time for that to change.

I did notice you failed to comment on my other points. Guess your year has not been so hot after all.

6 people like this
Posted by Peter F Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 30, 2017 at 7:43 pm

“i was referring to the single property in Atherton, but maybe you were not paying attention”

That property only cost 4.6 million - if you were paying attention.

19 people like this
Posted by Lynne E
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jan 2, 2018 at 10:31 am

Great article Barbara. Thank you!!

10 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 9, 2018 at 6:46 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

On Friday Jan 12 the Town of Atherton will release, probably as part of the Council’s packet for its Jan 17 meeting, the report from the Matrix Consulting Group.

Matrix was hired by the Town Council to do a so-called “Fire Services Fiscal Review” that included the following objective:

Web Link

It is important that the entire community being served by the Menlo Park Fire Protection District be aware of this study and of the very serious implications of any effort by the Atherton Town Council to extract property tax revenues from the Fire District - which would significantly lower the level of service that is being provided by the Fire District to ALL of its residents.

While no decision has yet been made regarding this issue, once this item appears on the Town Council’s agenda they could take action without any further notice to the community and without any notice to the non-Atherton residents of the Fire District. The new Atherton Mayor has already stated that one of his key priorities is "acting on the fiscal review of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District."

I am concerned for a number of reasons:
1 - The Town has had this report for months
2 - In order to keep from having to disclose this report the Town has labelled it as a draft report/working papers
3 - The then Town Mayor had this report with him at the Dec 12, 2017 Joint Meeting of the Fire Board and the Town Council and yet he made no attempt to share it with the Fire Board or the citizens in attendance at that meeting,
4 - The report has been circulated amongst the members of the Town Council - potentially to develop consensus on a course of action before the Jan 17 public meeting
5 - The report has not been shared with the Fire District
6 - The planned Jan 12 release date is the latest legally possible release date for an item which will be considered by the Council at its Jan 17 meeting.

All of these actions are inconsistent with the obligation of the Town Council to conduct its business in public and to seek input from affected parties before making any decisions on such an important issue.

Also, there is a fundamental principle of good governance/good management -

"Don't fix it if it is not broken."

In a carefully conducted, independent survey carried out last year by Zuma Strategies (which I paid for but over which I had no control) an amazing 98.5% of the resident’s (and 100% of the Atherton residents included in the survey) were "satisfied with level of service provided by our local fire department" and only 9.5% of the residents supported "a separate department for Atherton residents”.

Survey Dates: • 6/14/2017 – 6/24/2017
Sample Size: • 202 completed surveys*
Sampling Error: • +/- 6.9% at the 95% confidence level
Unit of Analysis: • Adult Residents
Survey Medium: • Facebook
Population: • Residents within Menlo Park Fire Protection District
Screens • Age, Language (to minimize Latino oversampling)
Languages • English
Quotas • Location, Gender, Latino
Corrections • Weighting for Female Oversample (Actual pop is 50.5% female)
Principal Researcher • Craig R. Everett, PhD

*National polls typically survey about 1 out of every 200,000 people in the target population.
See: Web Link

This survey sampled 1 out of every 400 adult residents of the Fire District and did so by exactly matching the demographics of the respondents to the latest census demographics.

Hopefully the Atherton Town Council will resist the temptation to engage in disruption of an emergency service that is widely perceived as doing an excellent job and instead focus its attention on important Town provided services.

11 people like this
Posted by Roy D
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 9, 2018 at 8:48 am

"I don't want to solicit their input," Mr. Carpenter said about the report, which suggests possible future fire stations locations, "because it's not their decision to make."

What goes around, comes around ...

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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