News

Menlo fire chief picks apart Atherton's idea of splitting from district

Menlo Park Fire Protection District board members joined about 20 residents on Feb. 18 at the district's Station 3 in Atherton to hear Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman explain why he believes Atherton's exit from the district, which the town is considering, would be a bad idea for the district and for the town.

The chief raised questions pertaining to how mutual aid would be handled following a divorce between the fire district and the town, financial equity among communities within the district, the special characteristics of fire service in Atherton, fire district employment and other issues.

The Atherton City Council and staff have for some time been discussing a possible split from the district and possibly contracting for fire services with another agency. The reason: Atherton contributes far more revenue to the fire district through its property taxes than it receives in benefits, town officials maintain, citing a survey commissioned by the town for fiscal year 2015-16.

The survey said that although Atherton has 8% of the residents in the fire district, it provided 31.7% of the district's total property tax revenues in 2015-16, which led to a subsidy by the town of more than $7 million in tax revenue for the fire agency's coffers.

Atherton says that it receives only about $4 million per year in fire services even though it is contributing about $12 million.

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But if the town and the district were to separate, there would be serious consequences, Schapelhouman said at the Feb. 18 meeting. For one thing, the town would block the district from providing so-called automatic aid to Redwood City, and Atherton's new fire service would have to take up that role.

It would also put the remaining portion of the district in a jam because it is hemmed in at its southern border with Palo Alto, which is in another county and doesn't currently provide automatic aid to the district, Schapelhouman said.

"(Palo Alto) operates on a different model," he said. "If we need assistance, most of it comes from the north."

A split would break up the service arrangements of the district's fire stations, because the current arrangements are based on serving neighborhoods rather than cities. "The stations are not in jurisdictions; they are in geographical locations," Schapelhouman said.

Atherton also presents significant service problems for firefighters. Homes in the community are much larger than in other areas of the district, on average, and are more difficult to cover, requiring crews that are experienced in the community and know how to deal with locked gates, irregularly placed fire hydrants and long, narrow streets that are dark at night, he noted.

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"There are extremely large homes in Atherton where there are sometimes two-story basements," Schapelhouman said. "I've fought fires in Atherton and it's not easy. The conditions are much different than in East Palo Alto, where you can sometimes get 20 residents living in a 1,100-square-foot home."

A separation from the district would also affect employee recruitment, since it would introduce an element of uncertainty about the future for employees, Schapelhouman said.

"There's a limited supply of qualified candidates for the positions we have," he said. "We have a lot of new personnel who are young and aggressive, and they want to learn. Right now what they see is uncertainty."

Former fire board member Peter Carpenter, who spoke up briefly at the meeting about the issue of fairness, warned in an email that if Atherton were to withdraw the entire $12 million the town's taxpayers now contribute to the district, other communities within the district's boundaries, especially East Palo Alto and the unincorporated San Mateo County areas, would suffer unfairly.

The loss of that revenue, he wrote, would sharply reduce the level of fire and emergency services that the district would then be able to provide to the other 85,000 residents of the fire district who typically have lower property values and per capita incomes.

Martha Poyatos, executive officer for the San Mateo Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), who spoke at the meeting, said that the agency can't really judge what a separation would look like until Atherton submits a formal application.

She said LAFCo would be looking at such issues as how fire service would be provided in Atherton, what response rates would be, and what the impact would be to the fire district of closing down Station 3 in Atherton.

"(The proposal) is unprecedented," Poyatos said in a telephone interview. "The chief identified some of the issues, but in the LAFCo process you can't really prejudge."

Redwood City provides fire service by contract to San Carlos, but the circumstances would be different if, for example, Atherton were also interested in contracting out with Redwood City, she said.

"San Carlos has a fire station and apparatus that Redwood City is using, but Atherton doesn't have its own fire station," Poyatos said. "Would (Atherton) be building a station somewhere in town?"

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Menlo fire chief picks apart Atherton's idea of splitting from district

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Tue, Feb 25, 2020, 4:23 pm

Menlo Park Fire Protection District board members joined about 20 residents on Feb. 18 at the district's Station 3 in Atherton to hear Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman explain why he believes Atherton's exit from the district, which the town is considering, would be a bad idea for the district and for the town.

The chief raised questions pertaining to how mutual aid would be handled following a divorce between the fire district and the town, financial equity among communities within the district, the special characteristics of fire service in Atherton, fire district employment and other issues.

The Atherton City Council and staff have for some time been discussing a possible split from the district and possibly contracting for fire services with another agency. The reason: Atherton contributes far more revenue to the fire district through its property taxes than it receives in benefits, town officials maintain, citing a survey commissioned by the town for fiscal year 2015-16.

The survey said that although Atherton has 8% of the residents in the fire district, it provided 31.7% of the district's total property tax revenues in 2015-16, which led to a subsidy by the town of more than $7 million in tax revenue for the fire agency's coffers.

Atherton says that it receives only about $4 million per year in fire services even though it is contributing about $12 million.

But if the town and the district were to separate, there would be serious consequences, Schapelhouman said at the Feb. 18 meeting. For one thing, the town would block the district from providing so-called automatic aid to Redwood City, and Atherton's new fire service would have to take up that role.

It would also put the remaining portion of the district in a jam because it is hemmed in at its southern border with Palo Alto, which is in another county and doesn't currently provide automatic aid to the district, Schapelhouman said.

"(Palo Alto) operates on a different model," he said. "If we need assistance, most of it comes from the north."

A split would break up the service arrangements of the district's fire stations, because the current arrangements are based on serving neighborhoods rather than cities. "The stations are not in jurisdictions; they are in geographical locations," Schapelhouman said.

Atherton also presents significant service problems for firefighters. Homes in the community are much larger than in other areas of the district, on average, and are more difficult to cover, requiring crews that are experienced in the community and know how to deal with locked gates, irregularly placed fire hydrants and long, narrow streets that are dark at night, he noted.

"There are extremely large homes in Atherton where there are sometimes two-story basements," Schapelhouman said. "I've fought fires in Atherton and it's not easy. The conditions are much different than in East Palo Alto, where you can sometimes get 20 residents living in a 1,100-square-foot home."

A separation from the district would also affect employee recruitment, since it would introduce an element of uncertainty about the future for employees, Schapelhouman said.

"There's a limited supply of qualified candidates for the positions we have," he said. "We have a lot of new personnel who are young and aggressive, and they want to learn. Right now what they see is uncertainty."

Former fire board member Peter Carpenter, who spoke up briefly at the meeting about the issue of fairness, warned in an email that if Atherton were to withdraw the entire $12 million the town's taxpayers now contribute to the district, other communities within the district's boundaries, especially East Palo Alto and the unincorporated San Mateo County areas, would suffer unfairly.

The loss of that revenue, he wrote, would sharply reduce the level of fire and emergency services that the district would then be able to provide to the other 85,000 residents of the fire district who typically have lower property values and per capita incomes.

Martha Poyatos, executive officer for the San Mateo Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), who spoke at the meeting, said that the agency can't really judge what a separation would look like until Atherton submits a formal application.

She said LAFCo would be looking at such issues as how fire service would be provided in Atherton, what response rates would be, and what the impact would be to the fire district of closing down Station 3 in Atherton.

"(The proposal) is unprecedented," Poyatos said in a telephone interview. "The chief identified some of the issues, but in the LAFCo process you can't really prejudge."

Redwood City provides fire service by contract to San Carlos, but the circumstances would be different if, for example, Atherton were also interested in contracting out with Redwood City, she said.

"San Carlos has a fire station and apparatus that Redwood City is using, but Atherton doesn't have its own fire station," Poyatos said. "Would (Atherton) be building a station somewhere in town?"

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Comments

whatever
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm
whatever, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm
9 people like this

Do those favoring dropping the district understand that it's not just putting out fires but the majority of the calls are for paramedics. What would the response time difference be?


Taxpayer
Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Feb 25, 2020 at 6:01 pm
Taxpayer, Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Feb 25, 2020 at 6:01 pm
6 people like this

Maybe the Fire district should hear what the town and the people are saying and recognize that they have been one of the highest paid, least utilized fire districts in the state. The budgets have been large due to high salaries, retirement packages, real estate purchases, equipment and lots of specialized training. Perhaps a reality check is what the District needs to get the spending under control.


Menlo Voter.
Menlo Park: other
on Feb 25, 2020 at 7:33 pm
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
on Feb 25, 2020 at 7:33 pm
9 people like this

Taxpayer:

Do you have a link to back up your claims? Among the highest paid? Probably. Least utilized? I doubt it.

Also, I'm happy to have the district get plenty of specialized training. I think you will be too if that training is ever required to save your butt. Among the the things a fire department trains for are things that might happen. Then they hope those things don't happen. But if they do, don't you want a fire service ready and trained to deal with those things instead of having to stand around scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do? While your life is ebbing away as they figure it out? I'll take them ready and trained to jump right in and save my life or my family's lives. Maybe you're different and don't really care.

I think most of us living in the district are happy with our fire district and the surveys of resident certainly indicate we're happy with the district and what it does. The only people I hear squawking are the Town Council of Atherton who don't know how to live within a budget, insisted on building a Taj Majal of a town center without knowing how to pay for it and who are now trying to take money from everyone else to fund their financial misfeasance.


Turn Atherton to Menlo Park
Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 26, 2020 at 9:37 am
Turn Atherton to Menlo Park, Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 26, 2020 at 9:37 am
9 people like this

I think we should just turn Atherton into "West Menlo Park", sort of like the nicer "West Austin" area in Austin, TX. They're practically the same area and intersect one another. And additionally, Palo Alto could be called "Menlo Park South".


Bob
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 26, 2020 at 10:23 am
Bob, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 26, 2020 at 10:23 am
13 people like this

As I've posted before on other articles, I just don't see lots of residents clamoring for this separation; this seems to be driven by the senior Town leaders. And it seems that these leaders are really deflecting other issues the Town is facing. In the end, it will still be the residents who are footing the bill for services through their taxes.

If Atherton is actually able to separate, the Town would have to have built fire stations and either buy or pay to hire staff and apparatus -- those are BIG ticket items.

Seems to me this is a case of the grass is greener....until you actually get there and realize that it's not.


John Davis
Menlo Park: other
on Feb 26, 2020 at 12:33 pm
John Davis, Menlo Park: other
on Feb 26, 2020 at 12:33 pm
5 people like this

How fun it will be when some Atherton residents realize they’ll be getting a new fire station beside their home. NIMBYs will show up and sink the whole idea.


MEMBERONE
Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 26, 2020 at 12:47 pm
MEMBERONE, Atherton: Lindenwood
on Feb 26, 2020 at 12:47 pm
3 people like this

So let's pay our fair share, Atherton, and not line the pockets of MPFD.
YES MP firefighters are highly paid and (disagree with Chief)"there is a limited supply of applicants." REALLY. Totally overstated.
I've said previously, having the best FD in the US is a nice bragging point, but I think we can have the best FD in the US with less expensive resources.


Steve Taffee
Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 26, 2020 at 2:58 pm
Steve Taffee, Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 26, 2020 at 2:58 pm
3 people like this

A data point that might help inform the discussion is not just the cost per resident to protect Atherton but a cost that reflect the price or real estate and rebuilding the homes in Atherton, "America's Richest Town" according to today's story in the Almanac.

In the tonier areas of Santa Barbara, millionaires are purchasing the services of private firefighting services as they don't don't like that the fire department will prioritize the greatest good for the greatest number in a disaster. They want their prized property protected before that of the peasantry.

"From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from him who has been entrusted with much, even more will be demanded." Um, guess Luke had that one wrong.


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