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Atherton vice mayor pushes back against possible fire district detachment

Atherton Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis expressed her displeasure with a plan to pursue detaching from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District during a Feb. 19 City Council meeting, while other council members said they want to continue gathering feedback from residents on the town's 2016 fire services study, which showed a disparity between the fixed percentage of tax revenues the town's property owners pay in return for emergency response services and how much it actually costs the district to provide those services.

The council reviewed a draft of a four-page newsletter, which is sent out to all residents, on fire service costs and agreed to come back with another draft of the letter with any additional information it can gather on Atherton fire costs. Lewis said she doesn't support separation from the fire district and that she'd like the document to be redrafted with a more "neutral tone." She said she would also like to have the fire district provide more recent data on costs to Atherton.

City Manager George Rodericks said the fire services subcommittee will review the draft newsletter and provide changes.

The newsletter, drafted by Rodericks, explains that the town "met with the District in the hopes of identifying some equity solutions that would allow the District to invest directly in the Town by providing public safety infrastructure to improve congestion, emergency response routes, safe routes to school, etc. Ultimately, the District declined to work with the Town to address the issue. This forced the Town to move toward a detachment solution in the hopes of a reallocation of the basic tax amount amongst the current taxing entities."

"We can rant and rave and say we're going to detach, but I don't think we should send this piece out to our residents the way it's written," Lewis said. "We should be friends (with fire district officials). We should be partners in our safety of the town. ... Neither the town nor the fire district have the ability to modify the basic tax amount Atherton pays."

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The town would have to seek legislative relief with county and/or state legislators to change the tax allocation following a detachment. A change in the law would allow the reallocation of revenues derived from the town's property taxes, since the allocation to fire services is based on a state formula. The allocations of property taxes were set soon after Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, and as the property taxes generated in the areas the fire district covers – Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and nearby unincorporated areas – increased, so did the fire district's revenue. Based on the results of the 2016 study and subsequent conversations town officials had with the district and the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), it is unlikely that a tax agreement could be negotiated and unlikely that special legislation would be supported, according to a Dec. 18 town staff report.

John Wurdinger, an Atherton firefighter and president of San Mateo County Firefighters IAFF Local 2400, a union that represents firefighters and paramedics from across the county, gave the only public comment on the topic at the meeting. He said that the 2016 study is not complete and that the council should conduct a comprehensive review that speaks to the "actual cost" of fire and emergency medical services to the town.

"As a public safety professional, as someone who has devoted his career to serving this very community, I strongly urge you as town council members to stand down from your proposal to leave behind the high-quality service you receive from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District," Wurdinger said.

Council member Cary Wiest said the consultant the town hired to conduct the fire services review did its job and the council needs to "continue to move forward instead of backtracking."

The review, commissioned by the town and released in 2018, found that Atherton taxpayers pay more than twice as much as fire services cost, paying about $7 million more annually than the cost of services. The study shows that in the 2015-16 fiscal year Atherton, which has 8% of the residents in the fire district, provided 31.7% of the district's total property tax revenues.

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Council member Bill Widmer said that if the district's Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has additional information on fire costs, that information can be taken into account. Widmer noted that it's been a long process to study the costs.

Issues discussed in the newsletter, called the Athertonian, include the tax revenue provided to the district by residents, the true cost of basic fire services and the difference between the cost of service and the revenue provided, according to a staff report.

The publication, which will be brought back to the council at a Wednesday, March 4, meeting for review, will not address fire department salaries and benefits, district organization, fiscal transparency and fiscal efficiencies, according to staff. It would take about five to seven days to print and then mail the newsletter after approval, said Rodericks in an email.

The council also tentatively scheduled community information meetings for the evenings of March 24 and April 1 in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Main House – on the 2016 fire services review.

In January, the council voted to initiate a two- to three-month process of gathering community input on the review after deciding in December to consider the following options:

• Complete an application to LAFCo for detachment from the fire district. Should the town proceed with a detachment process through LAFCo, that process would include various public meetings and could ultimately include a public vote.

• Discuss possible legislative relief with county and/or state legislators.

Menlo College dorms proposal

During the Feb. 19 meeting, the council also approved a consent item to allow Rodericks to execute an agreement with Lamphier Gregory, a professional services firm specializing in environmental analysis, urban planning and project management, for the preparation of an environmental document for dorms Menlo College is proposing on its campus. Widmer recused himself from the vote since he is a faculty member at the school.

The proposed three-story, 288-bed residence hall at 1000 El Camino Real would provide more on-campus housing options to students who currently live off campus, officials from the private school said in the staff report. The project is intended to address current demand for more on‐campus housing, not increases in student enrollment, the report states.

School officials say the new 36,700-square-foot space would accommodate 147 student dorms and amenities. Proposed amenities include study spaces, lounges, game rooms, kitchens and laundry rooms.

The proposed site for the new building, which would take about a year to build, is interior to the campus and immediately adjacent to the existing residence halls.

There are currently five residence halls on the college's campus – with rooms that accommodate one, two or three students each, according to Menlo College's website.

In early December, the Planning Department received an application from Menlo College for a conditional use permit to construct the residence hall. Staff reviewed the application materials and determined that additional analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act is required.

School officials declined to comment further on the proposed project.

A video of the meeting is available here.

-

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Angela Swartz joined The Almanac in 2018 and covers education and small towns. She has a background covering education, city politics and business. Read more >>

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Atherton vice mayor pushes back against possible fire district detachment

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Fri, Feb 28, 2020, 4:17 pm

Atherton Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis expressed her displeasure with a plan to pursue detaching from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District during a Feb. 19 City Council meeting, while other council members said they want to continue gathering feedback from residents on the town's 2016 fire services study, which showed a disparity between the fixed percentage of tax revenues the town's property owners pay in return for emergency response services and how much it actually costs the district to provide those services.

The council reviewed a draft of a four-page newsletter, which is sent out to all residents, on fire service costs and agreed to come back with another draft of the letter with any additional information it can gather on Atherton fire costs. Lewis said she doesn't support separation from the fire district and that she'd like the document to be redrafted with a more "neutral tone." She said she would also like to have the fire district provide more recent data on costs to Atherton.

City Manager George Rodericks said the fire services subcommittee will review the draft newsletter and provide changes.

The newsletter, drafted by Rodericks, explains that the town "met with the District in the hopes of identifying some equity solutions that would allow the District to invest directly in the Town by providing public safety infrastructure to improve congestion, emergency response routes, safe routes to school, etc. Ultimately, the District declined to work with the Town to address the issue. This forced the Town to move toward a detachment solution in the hopes of a reallocation of the basic tax amount amongst the current taxing entities."

"We can rant and rave and say we're going to detach, but I don't think we should send this piece out to our residents the way it's written," Lewis said. "We should be friends (with fire district officials). We should be partners in our safety of the town. ... Neither the town nor the fire district have the ability to modify the basic tax amount Atherton pays."

The town would have to seek legislative relief with county and/or state legislators to change the tax allocation following a detachment. A change in the law would allow the reallocation of revenues derived from the town's property taxes, since the allocation to fire services is based on a state formula. The allocations of property taxes were set soon after Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, and as the property taxes generated in the areas the fire district covers – Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and nearby unincorporated areas – increased, so did the fire district's revenue. Based on the results of the 2016 study and subsequent conversations town officials had with the district and the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), it is unlikely that a tax agreement could be negotiated and unlikely that special legislation would be supported, according to a Dec. 18 town staff report.

John Wurdinger, an Atherton firefighter and president of San Mateo County Firefighters IAFF Local 2400, a union that represents firefighters and paramedics from across the county, gave the only public comment on the topic at the meeting. He said that the 2016 study is not complete and that the council should conduct a comprehensive review that speaks to the "actual cost" of fire and emergency medical services to the town.

"As a public safety professional, as someone who has devoted his career to serving this very community, I strongly urge you as town council members to stand down from your proposal to leave behind the high-quality service you receive from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District," Wurdinger said.

Council member Cary Wiest said the consultant the town hired to conduct the fire services review did its job and the council needs to "continue to move forward instead of backtracking."

The review, commissioned by the town and released in 2018, found that Atherton taxpayers pay more than twice as much as fire services cost, paying about $7 million more annually than the cost of services. The study shows that in the 2015-16 fiscal year Atherton, which has 8% of the residents in the fire district, provided 31.7% of the district's total property tax revenues.

Council member Bill Widmer said that if the district's Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman has additional information on fire costs, that information can be taken into account. Widmer noted that it's been a long process to study the costs.

Issues discussed in the newsletter, called the Athertonian, include the tax revenue provided to the district by residents, the true cost of basic fire services and the difference between the cost of service and the revenue provided, according to a staff report.

The publication, which will be brought back to the council at a Wednesday, March 4, meeting for review, will not address fire department salaries and benefits, district organization, fiscal transparency and fiscal efficiencies, according to staff. It would take about five to seven days to print and then mail the newsletter after approval, said Rodericks in an email.

The council also tentatively scheduled community information meetings for the evenings of March 24 and April 1 in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Main House – on the 2016 fire services review.

In January, the council voted to initiate a two- to three-month process of gathering community input on the review after deciding in December to consider the following options:

• Complete an application to LAFCo for detachment from the fire district. Should the town proceed with a detachment process through LAFCo, that process would include various public meetings and could ultimately include a public vote.

• Discuss possible legislative relief with county and/or state legislators.

Menlo College dorms proposal

During the Feb. 19 meeting, the council also approved a consent item to allow Rodericks to execute an agreement with Lamphier Gregory, a professional services firm specializing in environmental analysis, urban planning and project management, for the preparation of an environmental document for dorms Menlo College is proposing on its campus. Widmer recused himself from the vote since he is a faculty member at the school.

The proposed three-story, 288-bed residence hall at 1000 El Camino Real would provide more on-campus housing options to students who currently live off campus, officials from the private school said in the staff report. The project is intended to address current demand for more on‐campus housing, not increases in student enrollment, the report states.

School officials say the new 36,700-square-foot space would accommodate 147 student dorms and amenities. Proposed amenities include study spaces, lounges, game rooms, kitchens and laundry rooms.

The proposed site for the new building, which would take about a year to build, is interior to the campus and immediately adjacent to the existing residence halls.

There are currently five residence halls on the college's campus – with rooms that accommodate one, two or three students each, according to Menlo College's website.

In early December, the Planning Department received an application from Menlo College for a conditional use permit to construct the residence hall. Staff reviewed the application materials and determined that additional analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act is required.

School officials declined to comment further on the proposed project.

A video of the meeting is available here.

-

Comments

Bob
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 1, 2020 at 4:08 pm
Bob, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 1, 2020 at 4:08 pm

It seems as if many, if not most, of the Atherton leaders are willing to fight this battle knowing it's a costly and lost cause.

It's not worth repeating all the reason why separating is a bad idea and won't work.


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 1, 2020 at 5:11 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 1, 2020 at 5:11 pm

"Council member Cary Wiest said the consultant the town hired to conduct the fire services review did its job and the council needs to "continue to move forward instead of backtracking."


The Matrix study was a sham - just look at their proposal to turn the house in Holbrook-Palmer Park into a fire
station:
"The existing home in the park will require renovations
to accommodate the fire personnel and the addition of an apparatus bay. It is
estimated these modifications and additions will cost $1.5 million."

And now the Town Council wants to do a sole source contract with Matrix to do the application to LAFCO - which the Town has already been told has no chance of being approved.

"The estimated cost for the scope of work to assist in the completion of the application would range
from $25,000 to $35,000. Matrix Consulting has expressed an interest in assisting the Town with
moving forward in the process."


What are these people smoking?


Bob
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 1, 2020 at 7:32 pm
Bob, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 1, 2020 at 7:32 pm

If the Town’s budget is already tight, where is the money coming from to build fire stations, hire personnel and buy apparatuses and equipment?????


Tom
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 2, 2020 at 8:45 am
Tom, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 2, 2020 at 8:45 am

The proposal to detach from the Fire District may well prove to be a form of SUICIDE. No start up service can perform as well as a well established, well respected Fire Service known for its excellent, consistent service to the community. You get what you pay for. Do it on the cheap and what do you imagine will result? It’s NOT just about the money. Detachment is a STUPID idea.


MEMBERONE
Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2020 at 12:22 pm
MEMBERONE, Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2020 at 12:22 pm

Umm Bob...
Who said the Atherton budget is tight?
The millions paid annually for fire services to MP would cover all the costs, then some, to build a first class Atherton Fire Department.
Can't wait to get that survey.


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 2, 2020 at 12:38 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 2, 2020 at 12:38 pm

"Can't wait to get that survey."

Here it the only survey that has ever been done on the issue:


In a carefully conducted, independent survey carried out last year by Zuma Strategies (which I paid for but over which I had no control) an amazing 98.5% of the resident’s (and 100% of the Atherton residents included in the survey) were "satisfied with level of service provided by our local fire department" and only 9.5% of the residents supported "a separate department for Atherton residents”.

Methodology
Survey Dates: • 6/14/2017 – 6/24/2017
Sample Size: • 202 completed surveys*
Sampling Error: • +/- 6.9% at the 95% confidence level
Unit of Analysis: • Adult Residents
Survey Medium: • Facebook
Population: • Residents within Menlo Park Fire Protection District
Screens • Age, Language (to minimize Latino oversampling)
Languages • English
Quotas • Location, Gender, Latino
Corrections • Weighting for Female Oversample (Actual pop is 50.5% female)
Principal Researcher • Craig R. Everett, PhD

*National polls typically survey about 1 out of every 200,000 people in the target population.
See: Web Link

This survey sampled 1 out of every 400 adult residents of the Fire District and did so by exactly matching the demographics of the respondents to the latest census demographics.


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 2, 2020 at 12:40 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 2, 2020 at 12:40 pm

"The millions paid annually for fire services to MP would cover all the costs, then some, to build a first class Atherton Fire Department."

Read the staff report carefully - Atherton would only get a fraction of that amount and the property taxes of Atherton residents would not go down by a single penny. STUPID.


Peter Carpenter
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:05 pm
Peter Carpenter, Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:05 pm


Final survey results with graphics are published here:


Web Link


Bob
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:46 pm
Bob, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:46 pm

@MEMBERONE

Have you done any pricing for buying property in Atherton, erecting fire stations, hiring staffing, and acquiring apparatuses and equipment?

Starting a new FD is very costly. According to LAFCO, Atherton would have to have all this in place BEFORE any separation could even be a possibility.

Even if funding could be redirected to the Town, this would take time since the legislature would have to approve it.

Again, I don't hear residents lobbying for this separation.


Observer II
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:58 pm
Observer II, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 2, 2020 at 1:58 pm

There was a movie out a few years ago staring Jim Carey called DUMB AND DUMBER !! Quite frankly, this proposal is just that. Despite a hard working group of City Council Members, it is high time, if not long overdue, to put an end to this ill advised proposal. DETACHMENT will only result in a LOWER level of service. Far more important and far more urgent issues need to be addressed. My advice, end this nightmare. Detachment is NOT the answer.


MEMBERONE
Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2020 at 6:10 pm
MEMBERONE, Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 2, 2020 at 6:10 pm

Umm Bob...
I live in Atherton...
Don't need a tutorial about the price of real estate.


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