"The goal of the outreach would be to inform residents regarding the issues that have been raised in the study and to seek resident input regarding how to respond to those issues," said Mayor Rick DeGolia in an email. "The discussion at this month's meeting was to focus that outreach on the next few months and to limit the process so that it doesn't take a long time."
It will cost $2,000 for the newsletter and $200 for each community meeting, according to a staff report. (The $200 covers the cost of providing refreshments at the meeting.)
The community meetings will be led by the town's fire services ad hoc subcommittee, which is made up of council members Bill Widmer and Cary Wiest.
Staff will write the newsletter, which Wiest and Widmer will review before it goes back to the full council for review at its Feb. 19 meeting, Rodericks said.
The community meeting dates are still to be determined, Rodericks said.
The council also had the option to host a special meeting dedicated to the issue, but chose not to do so, according to the staff report.
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 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.
At its Dec. 18 meeting, the council opted to consider the following options:
• Pursue further public education and outreach.
• Complete an application to the San Mateo County Local Agency Formation Commission (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. This would involve a change in the law, reallocating revenues derived 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 study and subsequent conversations with the district and LAFCo, it is unlikely that a tax agreement could be negotiated and unlikely that special legislation would be supported, according to the Dec. 18 staff report.
The town's fire services subcommittee met with LAFCo representatives in November to explore possible steps the town might take to detach from the fire district or pursue other solutions, according to the staff report. Those representatives made clear that LAFCo doesn't support the town's breakaway from the fire district, and that the consolidation of services.
The fire district and the City Council last met publicly in January 2019. During the joint meeting, officials agreed to form a subcommittee to talk about ways to address Atherton's concerns about its financial contributions to the district
The subcommittee, which consists of two people from each agency, was to discuss three options for the town: continue with the status quo, detach from the fire district and seek an alternative for emergency services, or find a mutually agreeable way to increase services to the town.
Council members Widmer and Weist, and fire board members Virginia Chang Kiraly and Jim McLaughlin, an Atherton resident, serve on the subcommittee.
While no one from the fire district disputed the disparities presented in the report during the joint meeting a year ago, fire board member Chuck Bernstein did argue with the methods the consultant used, including the calculation of service calls to Atherton based on where the calls originated. Bernstein also noted that the study implied that if Atherton were to detach itself from the fire district, there's an assumption that the fire district would still cover a third of the town where emergency response times from the two Atherton fire stations would not be acceptable. "That isn't fair either," he said.
A staff report and analysis of the cost to detach from the fire district will likely return to the council during its March 4 study session, according to staff.
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