Although two council members have now come out against the idea of the town of Atherton separating from the local fire district, the City Council majority appears to be intent on pursuing the controversial move, directing staff last week to send out informational material and conduct two community meetings on the topic.
Mayor Rick DeGolia has joined Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis in voicing opposition to Atherton's detachment from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, an idea town officials have been considering after a study by a consultant hired by the town showed a substantial 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 council met for a 4 p.m. March 4 study session to discuss possible detachment, hearing from sometimes dubious community members and the head of the county agency that oversees the setting of district boundaries for public agencies.
Martha Poyatos, executive director of the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), urged the council to have backup services in place before initiating a process through LAFCo to separate from the fire district.
"Make sure you have a path forward before you engage a consultant," Poyatos advised the council. 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, according to a staff report prepared for the meeting.
A 2016 fire services study, released in 2018, found that Atherton taxpayers pay more than twice as much as what fire services to the town cost, contributing 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.
Figures released by town officials in a newsletter being sent to all residents indicate that the figure has risen to 34% this fiscal year.
At the Feb. 19 council meeting Vice Mayor Lewis urged her colleagues to end consideration of a town split from the fire district. "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," she said.
Although Rick DeGolia said he doesn't support detachment from the fire district, he acknowledged that the town has a "tax problem" on its hands and said it's a "very hard issue."
In an email to The Almanac after the March 4 meeting, DeGolia wrote: "I don't think that we can renegotiate the taxes that Atherton residents pay to the Fire District without going through detachment, but I don't think that there is a realistic opportunity to renegotiate those taxes because I don't believe that LAFCO will approve a detachment application.
"I think that it is a waste of time and money to pursue detachment from the Fire District because I believe that detachment (1) would not be beneficial to Atherton residents and (2) is very unlikely to be approved by LAFCO. I don't think that detachment would benefit to Atherton residents because I believe that we get better service from MPFPD than we could get from any alternative service provider given MPFPD's delivery of service from five fire stations that surround Atherton, as well as their knowledge of Atherton residences and their professionalism."
DeGolia also noted that he believes the relationship between Atherton and the fire district "can be resolved. It takes political will and operational attention.
"Our police department works closely with the Fire District to protect our schools and our residents. It is a shame that there has been this lack of collaboration between the Fire Board and the Atherton Council," he wrote. "I would like to see that change, but it will be difficult so long as some council members are seeking to end the relationship and some people associated with the Fire Board continue to falsely insist that Atherton is somehow trying to take tax dollars from the Fire District.
"I believe that we should partner together at the Board and Council and administration levels because our goals are the same: to protect Atherton residents and schools."
Some community members at the March 4 meeting urged the council to drop the separation discussion, including former fire board member Peter Carpenter, a Menlo Park resident and past Atherton resident. Carpenter stated that detachment would be based on "faulty and incomplete analysis" and that separation would be "seriously damaging" to Atherton's neighbors.
"Take a look at this process: many people cannot attend a 4 p.m. meeting on a Wednesday (to provide input on detachment)," he said. "This is really a sham."
One Atherton resident asked if town officials could spend more time editing the newsletter the town is sending all residents because he wants council members to all be comfortable with it before it is sent. He noted that the tax issue is a "multimillion dollar problem" and should be given the time and thought it deserves.
Should the town pursue separation from the district, it would need to include in its application a plan for providing fire services to its residents and a five-year projected operational and capital budget for fire services, according to the staff report. Staff estimates pursuing detachment through LAFCo would cost $50,000. The application itself costs $7,250.
The council directed staff to contact other local fire districts, such as the Woodside Fire Protection District and Redwood City Fire Department, to begin talks regarding those districts' ability and willingness to offer their services to Atherton.
The council also voted 3-1 to mail the informational newsletter that had been reviewed at a previous meeting; the newsletter focusing on the fire services study, noting the disproportionate amount Atherton residents pay to fund the district.
DeGolia voted against sending the newsletter, and urged the town to change some of its content if it is sent out; Lewis was absent.
Council member Mike Lempres said that the review of services has dragged on for several years, and he doesn't want to delay two upcoming community informational meetings on the topic to continue to make edits to the newsletter.
"At some point we have to put a stake in the ground," he said.
Lewis said at the February meeting that she'd like the document to be redrafted with a more "neutral tone."
It will take about five to seven days to print and mail the newsletter after approval, Rodericks said in an email. Staff emailed a digital version to residents on March 5.
The council has scheduled community meetings for 6:30 p.m. on March 24 and April 1 in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Main House to discuss the 2016 fire services consultant's review.
The council in January 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.
Fire district officials did not attend the meeting March 4 meeting.
Watch a video of the meeting here.