The City Council voted Wednesday night, March 21, to spend $13,500 to have Matrix prepare another report, looking into exactly what the town would need to do to leave the fire district. The consultants will also explore what legislative options might exist that could reallocate property tax revenues.
The Matrix proposal says the report will be ready in about two months. The actual process of separating from the district would probably take years, however.
"There's an enormous opportunity cost to overpaying for fire services," said council member Mike Lempres. The extra property taxes now going to the fire district would be redistributed to local agencies such as school districts and other special districts, as well as the town, he said. The difference could possibly mean, he said, that local school districts might not need to keep passing parcel taxes.
"In my view, this is an important thing to do, to keep moving forward," Mr. Lempres said. "I think we need to know what the options are."
The vote was not unanimous. Council member Rick DeGolia moved to table the proposal to an indefinite future date, with support from council member Elizabeth Lewis. Mr. DeGolia said the town needs to concentrate on building a new civic center, the largest public project in the history of the town. "I think that this issue with the fire district is a distraction from that," he said.
"What are we going to do if we detach?" Mr. DeGolia asked. "Why would we do that, (when) we have excellent service from this fire district?
It's just that we pay a hell of a lot of tax dollars for it."
"There's nothing that I can see that we can do about it," Mr. DeGolia said. "Our residents are not going to pay any less in taxes if we detach. It would just be redistributed."
Ms. Lewis had different concerns about the proposal. She said she thinks the report will be a "boilerplate analysis" of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) process for detachment. "I think they will be very, very light if at all on" ideas to change the legislative process for allocating the property taxes, she said.
City Attorney Bill Conners said the report would probably not be looking at changing Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978 as a constitutional amendment. Instead, it would look at changing the laws approved by the state legislature following Prop 13's passage that allocate property tax revenues to various government agencies.
Mayor Cary Wiest, who is the council's long-time liaison to the fire district, said not looking at the town's options would mean the disparity in how much is paid for fire district services and how much is spent providing them would continue to grow. "We can sit on the sidelines and watch the figures grow, grow and grow," he said. "I believe we do have a fiduciary duty" to Atherton taxpayers to further investigate.
"I believe we should be stepping up for the taxpayers of Atherton," Mayor Wiest said. "I don't think anyone here is expecting, if there was a reallocation to be applied, that we would get that whole reallocation."
Even if the town left the fire district, the district could bid on continuing to provide services, Mayor Wiest said.
Sitting here now and doing nothing will led to exactly that, nothing," said council member Bill Widmer. "Yes the service they give us is very good. They do an excellent job for us."
"I think we need to take this step and understand what the options are," he said.
After Mr. DeGolia's motion to table the discussion failed to gain the third vote it needed, the council voted to approve the new study 4-1, with Mr. DeGolia dissenting.
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