Atherton will continue to look at its options for pulling out of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District or reducing the share of property taxes the district receives, its City Council decided Wednesday night, Feb. 21.
The council had invited Atherton residents to weigh in on a report from the Matrix Consulting Group showing that in the 2015-16 fiscal year Atherton, with 8 percent of the residents in the fire district, provided $11.8 million to the district -- 31.7 percent of its total property tax revenue.
The study says if the town had its own fire department it would probably cost $6.8 million a year. Contracting with another fire department would cost an estimated $7.4 million annually.
The council agreed that Matrix should be asked to consider how to address the points raised in the report, including the process and issues involved in separating from the district, as well as any legislative process that could change the allocation of property tax dollars the district receives.
The decision was not unanimous. While a vote was not required to give City Manager George Rodericks direction for the town's next steps with the Matrix report, two council members were not enthusiastic about going on to examine the town's options.
Council member Rick DeGolia said he feels the town has too much else on its plate with construction of a new civic center to begin later this year. "The way I look at it, the council has our hands full," he said. "This is not the time to take this on."
Later in the meeting, however, Mr. DeGolia said he'd like to know the details of the process involved in separating from the district. "I'd like to see a report on how long it would take, what the cost would be," he said.
Council member Elizabeth Lewis said she thinks the town should further investigate legislative solutions on its own. "I think we need to really look at this very, very hard and talk to our state legislators, our senators, and figure out how we can recalculate, reset our contribution...so the fire district just doesn't have so much excess," she said.
"They have an enormous fiscal surplus," she said. "They get to play with all this money all the time."
"We know we're paying too much," Ms. Lewis said.
But the other three council members agreed the study should be continued.
"I think this is a very long process," said council member Mike Lempres. "I think the time to look at it is now. I would be in favor of learning what our options are, what the process is."
"We are overpaying for fire services," he said, adding that when a public agency's revenues go up "bureaucracies expand." The salaries paid to fire district employees are "out of line," he said.
Mayor Cary Wiest, who is the town's liaison to the fire district and attends most of its board's meetings, said that as property values continue to increase in Atherton the gap between the revenues the district receives from the town and the amount it spends in providing services in the town will continue to grow larger.
"If we think it's bad now, it's only going to get worse," he said.
Mayor Wiest said all the fire districts in the county provide good service, but the Menlo Park district has "more money than most, so they can do more things. They have more toys than most," he said.
Mayor Wiest said the cost per capita for fire district residents is much more for Atherton than any other jurisdiction covered by the fire district.
The district covers Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and adjacent parts of unincorporated San Mateo County.
The per-capita costs for fire service are:
Atherton, with a population of 7,207 = $ 1,639.06
Menlo Park, with a population of 33,888 = $517.82
San Mateo County with a population of 19,221 = $302.64
East Palo Alto with a population of 29,684 = $70.16
All council members agreed the fire district provides good service.
"Under no circumstances are we saying the service we are receiving from the Menlo Park fire district is not appropriate. It's first rate," said council member Bill Widmer. "What has changed ... is all this growth in these other areas," he said. "There needs to be some sort of adjustment."
Council members also emphasized that looking at what the next steps could be doesn't mean they'll take them. "It doesn't mean that we'll do anything," Mr. Widmer said. "I do think the numbers are too big to ignore. "
Council members also said they had never believed that the town would end up with the property tax dollars that now go to the fire district.
"We couldn't take their tax dollars if we wanted to," Mr. DeGolia said. Instead, the tax money that is in excess of what is needed to provide fire service to Atherton would be reallocated by the county to schools and other local entities, he said.
Among the few speakers from the public at the meeting was former Atherton mayor Malcolm Dudley. Mr. Dudley argued that the town ought to be willing to pay a premium to get excellent fire service.
"Having the very best emergency services should be our top priority," he said.
Disasters such as the recent North Bay fires "are not limited to city boundaries. We're all in it together," Mr. Dudley said.
Atherton's withdrawal from the fire district would affect the remaining cities in the district, Mr. Dudley said. "I think it would be a horrible mistake to do that," he said.
The fire district's board on Tuesday night, Feb. 20, voted to make no response to the fire district study and no representatives of the district spoke at the meeting.
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