The year 2018 was a challenging one for the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which provides first-responder services for emergencies in Menlo Park, Atherton, East Palo Alto and adjacent unincorporated communities.
• The town of Atherton challenged the fire district to discuss findings that revealed a district bottom line that grows yearly by millions of dollars in Atherton property tax revenues over and above what the district spends in providing services to Atherton.
• A San Mateo County grand jury report challenged the fire district on its lack of a strategic plan even as it spends almost $22 million on property acquisitions, lobbies its member communities (unsuccessfully) to authorize development impact fees, then negotiates "directly with private companies (such as Facebook) and developers within the District for additional resources."
• Ahead of a 4-1 vote by the board to approve a contract with the firefighters' union that, over five years, boosts wages an average of $58,726, members of the public challenged the board by flooding their inboxes with messages in opposition. With an average wage of $166,568, fire district employees are the highest paid in the state for a local or state agency for the second consecutive year, according to the state Controller's Office.
About that $7.2 million
The Atherton City Council commissioned a report on the distribution of its property tax revenues in the 2015-16 fiscal year. The results, released in January 2018, found that while the town retained $7.5 million in property tax revenues for government operations, it gave the fire district $11.8 million.
In return, the fire district provided Atherton with services valued at $4.6 million, a difference of $7.2 million. Atherton is home to 8 percent of the fire district's residents and provided 31.7 percent of the district's revenues, the report said.
Since announcing the report's results, Atherton officials have made a point of saying that they are not at all dissatisfied with the services the fire district provides.
The report noted that options for Atherton include detaching the town from the fire district, negotiating with the district to reallocate some Atherton tax dollars, or asking the state Legislature to reallocate the funds, since the allocation is based on a state formula.
The council requested a public meeting to discuss the findings with the district governing board in July. Fire district Chief Harold Schapelhouman recently announced a joint meeting for Tuesday, Jan. 22.
The fire district expanded its portfolio of properties in 2018, spending $3.2 million for a house next to its Alameda de las Pulgas station in unincorporated Menlo Park. And the board voted unanimously to hire a property management firm to rent out the house.
The house purchase was part of the $13.7 million spent in district reserve funds in the 2017-18 fiscal year, including $5 million for a warehouse in East Palo Alto, a section of which is rented to the federal government for Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3 equipment.
All told, the district has spent almost $29 million in property purchases since 2006. All were made with cash from district reserves, which were $65 million – 120 percent of the district's operating budget – for the 2017-18 fiscal year.
On a 3-2 vote, the fire district board approved a plan to station an employee inside Facebook's Menlo Park offices to help prepare emergency response plans for the company in coordination with the fire district, as well as help in employee training, drills and team building.
The employee, to be known as a public-service assistant, will receive a salary of up to $150,000 per year. Facebook plans to reimburse the fire district for work done for the company, but if the assistant does emergency planning work for some other entity, such as the city of Menlo Park, the fire district would pay for that work.
This arrangement comes in the wake of a county grand jury report that accused the district of taking "donations" from companies, including Facebook, to support district operations in lieu of receiving funding through the development impact fee process.
The traditional impact fee process involves municipalities imposing the fees on developers and companies and passing a portion along to special agencies. Fire district officials lobbied local towns to impose the fees without success. Town officials say the district didn't provide the information required to justify imposing the fees.
The grand jury report cited the danger of a public entity accepting money from a business that is "subject to inspection and regulation" by district employees. It creates "the possible appearance of favorable treatment or disparate application of rules or laws," the report said.
Change in leadership
The election in November saw the departure of a longtime board member, Peter Carpenter, who chose not to run again; the victory of an appointed board member, Robert Jones of East Palo Alto, who was by far the top vote-getter; the arrival of a new board member, Jim McLaughlin of Atherton; and the return of a veteran board member, Chuck Bernstein of Menlo Park, despite an active campaign by the departing Carpenter to see him defeated.
For the duration of the vote counting, Jones led by 34 percent, with McLaughlin in second place with 26 percent and Bernstein in third place with 25 percent.
Jones is the first African-American to serve on the board. McLaughlin is retired from the California Highway Patrol, where he led the planning and enforcement division. Bernstein is known for his dissenting views, often concerning how the district spends its money.