At last month's meeting, 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 recommend 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 if it were to separate from the district. A change in the law would allow the reallocation of tax revenues, since the allocation to fire services is based on a state formula.
The property tax allocation formula was set soon after Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, and as the tax revenue generated increased in the areas the fire district serves — Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Atherton and nearby unincorporated areas — 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 special legislation to reallocated tax revenue 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 countywide, said at the meeting 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 consulting firm 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 town-commissioned review, released in 2018, found that Atherton property owners pay the district more than twice as much as fire services cost; the study puts the overpayment at about $7 million annually. 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 district 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 consultant's conclusions about 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 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 on the 2016 fire services review for the evenings of March 24 and April 1 in Holbrook-Palmer Park's Main House.
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.
This story contains 889 words.
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