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.
Early in 2017 the Almanac reported that Publicpay.ca.gov, 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.
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.
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.
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.