At its Wednesday, March 4, 4 p.m. meeting, the Atherton City Council may decide to direct staff to initiate a process for separating from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District in light of the town's 2016 fire services study, which showed a disparity between the fixed percentage of tax revenues the town's property owners pay for emergency response services and how much it actually costs the district to provide those services. The process would likely cost about $50,000.
The move to consider formal separation from the fire district – through an application process with the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) – follows comments from Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis during the council's Feb. 19 meeting that she doesn't support detachment. During the upcoming meeting, the council will direct staff on whether it would support pursuing an application to separate, according to a report staff prepared for the meeting.
In the application, town officials would need to include a plan for providing fire services to its residents and a five-year projected operational and capital budget for fire services, according to the report.
The application must demonstrate that the town can provide a level of service consistent with services provided in the area; indicate when that service would commence; and how that service would be provided, staff notes. The application would trigger a letter from the state controller regarding the required property tax negotiation. The county Board of Supervisors negotiates on behalf of the district after providing notice to and consultation with the district. The county and the town would then begin negotiations for a property tax exchange and that negotiation may take no longer than 60 days from the date of the controller's letter.
Although the staff report mentions that fire district representatives may give a presentation in regard to its services and Atherton's potential separation from the district, City Manager George Rodericks said that as of 1 p.m. on Tuesday, fire district officials indicated they would not attend the meeting. In a Feb. 24 email, Mayor Rick DeGolia invited fire district officials – including district President Robert Jones and Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman – to the meeting to discuss costs of services to Atherton, the numbers of documented fires in town from 2015 to 2019 and the nature and outcomes of service calls to the town.
Staff estimates pursuing detachment through LAFCo would cost $50,000. The application itself costs $7,250. It would cost between $25,000 and $35,000 for a consultant to assist in the process and about $7,750 for associated legal costs.
At the same Wednesday meeting, council members may vote to finalize, and mail, an informational newsletter to residents that is part of its process gathering feedback from residents on the study. Lewis said 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.
During the Feb. 19 meeting, council members asked town staff to update the newsletter, which is mailed to all residents, with any additional information available on Atherton fire costs. Town staff will present the update, which now includes more recent fire district costs to the town, to the council on Wednesday.
During the 2019-20 fiscal year, Atherton residents paid 34%, or $18.3 million, of the total $54.3 million local jurisdictions pay to fund the district, the newsletter states.
"That's (the 34% figure) significant given that Atherton represents only 8% of the District population and 9-10% of the District's total calls for service," the newsletter explains, noting, too, that the majority of those from Atherton residents are emergency medical calls, meaning they prompt outside ambulance services.
"In the end, this is an effort to equalize revenues amongst the taxing entities and reduce the reliance by other agencies on special tax levies or parcel tax assessments," the newsletter concludes. "The Town hopes that by doing so, it will reduce the overall long-term tax burden to Atherton residents by providing a more equitable distribution of property taxes."
It would take about five to seven days to print and then mail the newsletter after approval, Rodericks said in an email.
The council has 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.
Fire services study
The 2016 fire services review, commissioned by the town and released in 2018, found that Atherton taxpayers pay more than twice as much as what fire services cost, paying about $7 million more a year 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 fire district's total property tax revenues.
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.
The meeting takes place at 4 p.m. in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Pavilion, 150 Watkins Ave. in Atherton.
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 4, 2020 at 7:49 pm
on Mar 4, 2020 at 7:49 pm
From what I was told, it seems as if more work need to be done by the staff and council before they should even consider moving forward with this possibility even though there appears to be some council members who are determined to see this through regardless.
I believe these individuals think they can get a better deal elsewhere. I doubt they are even able to comprehend the whole picture, but that doesn't seem to deter them.
If you don't think the Town should continue to spend staff time and money or if you like things the way they are, then email the Council at [email protected]
Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Mar 4, 2020 at 8:31 pm
on Mar 4, 2020 at 8:31 pm
As a citizen who has long served in an elected office it was sad to see Atherton Town Council Member Cary Wiest lie about the Fire District’s participation in the preparation of the Town’s Matrix Report.
Immediately after the Town commissioned the Matrix Report two Fire Board members and the senior Fire District staff met with Matrix and provided every piece of information that Matrix requested as long as that information existed - and even worked to find information that did not already exist. That commitment continued throughout the Matrix process. Matrix in return promised to provide the Fire District with a draft of their report for comment/factual correction. However, the Town Manager prohibited Matrix from getting that fact check from the Fire District.
The public deserves elected officials who tell the truth - Cary Wiest does not.