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?"