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Atherton Town Council continues to tilt at windmills

Original post made by Peter Carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood, on Oct 1, 2019

After 5years and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollar of Atherton residents' taxes the Town Council is continuing to tilt at windmills:

"The Town’s Subcommittee expressed disappointment that the District did not wish to address the
equity issue and expressed that the Subcommittee would have to report back to the Council and
suggest next steps. The Subcommittee also notes that since the Town’s initiation of concerns of
equity, the Fire District has expanded their service model through the acquisition of new
facilities, new vehicles, development of a regional fire academy, and enhancement of wages and
benefits for fire personnel.
At this time, the Town, Council, and Council Subcommittee has spent at least 5 years working
with the District to identify and solve an equity issue between the cost to provide fire services to
Atherton residents and the revenue provided to the District by Atherton residents."

"Based on the feedback and discussions with the District, the policy issue is whether the Council
would like to move forward with formal conversations with LAFCO to create a list of next steps
in the process for consideration of detachment. "

Web Link

Eventually, and after wasting a lot of time and taxpayers' monies, the Town Council will realize:

1) That EVERY federal, state and local agency receives more revenue from Atherton residents than the cost of the services which each of those agencies provides to Atherton residents and

2) That Atherton residents have themselves elected officials who are responsible for overseeing each of those agencies and

3) That Atherton residents have never deputized the Town Council to represent them with regards to any of these agencies.

And then perhaps the Town Council will instead focus on the job that they were elected to do - running a wonderful, small town in a manner that its residents deserve.

Comments (13)

Posted by Rock and hard place
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 1, 2019 at 4:05 pm

Problem is Peter, they've dug a hole they cannot climb out of. The Taj Mahal Town Center is going to put the Town about $25M in debt by the time the smoke clears. They made sure to put this to a point of no return but it's going to backfire badly. Unfortunately, it's going to backfire on the residents who pay the taxes.

The fight with the fire district is very transparently related to the extremely poor judgment that was exercised in this fiasco, and is a desperate attempt at getting the fire district to bail the town out.

But just like the New York Daily News printed many years ago in a similar request for a bailout, "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD".

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 1, 2019 at 9:14 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The irony in the Town Council's search for "fiscal equity" is that their own Town government is one of the least efficient in California.

Nowhere else does such a large fraction of a local government's expenditures go to overhead - a direct function of a very small town trying to act like a bigger city.

Atherton pays its Town Manager (who calls himself a City Manager) and police chief almost as much as do communities ten times as large. And now it wants to add a fire chief to its overhead!

The Town Council simply does not understand the basic principles of sound management and economies of scale.

Contract with the Sheriff for police services and the Town would save $4 million a year.

Share a town manager with another tiny community and save another $500 thousand every year.

That would be true fiscal equity for Atherton taxpayers.

And NEVER again ask for a parcel tax when, due to new construction, property tax revenues are increasing 3 times faster than the CPI.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 2, 2019 at 4:51 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Here is an expert opinion on this issue from the Executive director of LAFCO:

From: Martha Poyatos

Date: February 9, 2018 at 3:20:27 PM PST

To: Allan Epstein
Subject: RE: Atherton considering withdrawing from Menlo Park Fire District

Hi Allan;

Below I have copied and pasted your questions and include my responses:

Please explain the process for how detachment would be done.

The process for the Town of Atherton to detach from Menlo Park Fire Protection District (MPFPD) and either form a stand-alone department or contract with another fire agency would start with the Town adopting a resolution of application to LAFCo to amend the MPFPD sphere of influence and detach from the District. The application would include the resolution, application, plan for providing service, indemnification form and LAFCo fees.

The basic process is:

1) Town adopts resolution of application referenced above and submits it with application, plan for providing service, indemnification and fees to San Mateo Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). The Commission has the authority to approve, approve with modifications, modify or deny applications.

2) LAFCo staff processes the application by referring it to affected county departments (assessor, elections, etc.) and agencies (Town of Atherton, MPFPD, affected cities)

3) LAFCo application triggers a letter from the Controller to the County and the Town initiating a 60 day property tax negotiation period. (Both the Board of Supervisors and Town Council must adopt property tax resolutions before LAFCo can schedule the application for hearing)

4) Once the application is deemed complete including adopted resolutions of tax exchange, LAFCo can schedule a noticed public hearing.

5) At the hearing, the Commission has the authority to approve, approve with modifications or conditions or deny the application.

6) If approved, LAFCo would be required to hold a protest hearing at which registered voters can submit written protest. If 50% or more of the voters submit protest, the detachment is terminated. If less than 25% of the registered voters in the Town submit protest, LAFCo orders the detachment. If 25% or more of the registered voters but less than 50% submit written protest, the detachment is subject to an election at which a majority of the Atherton registered voters must vote in favor of the detachment.

7) If approved by lack of protest or by majority vote at an election, LAFCo would finalize the detachment once all conditions are met. Conditions could include an executed contract with another fire agency, acquisition of station, apparatus or other actions.

Who gets to decide?

The Commission has the discretion to approve, approve with conditions or deny and must consider a set of mandated factors including:

The effect of the proposed action and of alternative actions, on adjacent areas, on mutual social and economic interests, and on the local governmental structure of the county; The ability of the newly formed or receiving entity to provide the services which are the subject of the application to the area, including the sufficiency of revenues for those services following the proposed boundary change;

Comments of affected agencies and individuals.

If approved by the Commission registered voters in the Town of Atherton have the opportunity for protest and possibly voting in an election as noted above.

How are assets and liabilities divided?

Detachment does not affect ownership of District owned assets such as stations and apparatus. LAFCo consideration in review of the proposal would include fiscal impact to MPFPD in regard to liabilities related to staff and facilities located in Atherton and loss of property tax revenue and the fiscal viability of a stand-alone department.

How does the Town receive the “fire protection” share of property taxes going forward?

The property tax transfer is a discretionary negotiation set forth in Revenue and Taxation Code. In boundary changes that involve independent special districts, the Board of Supervisors would negotiate with the Town on behalf of the special district (after providing notice to the District and providing the District opportunity to comment). In the case of a detachment, it is not clear that all of the fire district’s property tax share would be transferred to only the Town or if some would go to other agencies (school districts, health care district, county, etc.) that also overlap with MPFPD.

How long might the change take?

Without an election an estimate of the timeline is 5 to 8 months. With an election an estimate is 15 to 24 months based on election law time frames.

Please keep in mind that the proposal to detach from a regional fire district is unprecedented and in processing an actual application other issues may arise that I have not addressed here or that were not addressed in the Fire Services Fiscal Review commissioned by the Town.

Thank you for your patience in waiting for my response to your e-mail.


Martha Poyatos

Executive Officer
And here is data on public opinion on this issue:

In 2017 an independent, scientifically designed survey was conducted regarding the Fire District’s performance:
- 100% of Atherton residents who were surveyed were satisfied with the Fire District’s level of service
- 85% of Atherton residents who were surveyed gave the Fire District an approval rating of 4 or 5 on a scale of 1-5
- only 14% of Atherton residents who were surveyed wanted a separate fire department for Atherton residents.

Compared to the Atherton parcel tax which failed with only 52% of the vote.

With these numbers and since a detachment proposal would lead to a protest hearing and only 25% of the voters could trigger an election and the Atherton residents are overwhelming pleased with their current fire services and nobody's property tax would go down by a penny this looks like a very good time for the Town Council to close out this saga.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 2, 2019 at 6:25 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

“Following approx. a 30 minute discussion (4:45 pm - 5:15 pm), the Atherton City Council decided tonight to move forward with a referral to the Local Agency Formation Commission, or commonly known as LAFCO.”

Evidently they did not read or understand the February 2018 letter from the LAFCO Executive Director.

Eventually, after wasting hundreds of thousand of the taxpayers money, the Town Council will realize that they have no responsibility for, no authority over or any control of the independent Fire District which has its own voter elected Board.

Posted by Observer II
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Weekend Acres
on Oct 3, 2019 at 11:16 am

Observer II is a registered user.


1- Why is Atherton picking on and singling out the Fire District when nearly 100% of others they pay (such as the Federal and State Government, School District and others) provide pennies on the dollar in relation to what Atherton citizens are paying?

2- Isn't this like shooting the horse? How can you expect the District to do their best when you shoot them in the foot, such as cutting off their nose despite their face?

3- Has Atherton considered a VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT, which maybe they can provide to their citizens "on the cheap"? As they say, a dollar saved is a dollar earned? With so little fires each year, why provide a first class service?

4- Has Atherton approached Redwood City Fire Department to ask if they would be willing to step in and help out?

5- Has Atherton considered hiring a FACILIATOR to resolve their differences with the Fire District (or others)? Too much isolation results in misunderstandings. Maybe with a mediator, or equivalent, they can kiss and make up.

6- Why wasn't the Fire District, LAFCO and MATRIX invited to the meeting?

This and more may help to clarify why this topic is such a focus. For my nickel, Atheron has bigger fish to fry on behalf of their citizens.

Posted by Rock and hard place
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 3, 2019 at 2:24 pm

"Why is Atherton picking on and singling out the Fire District when nearly 100% of others they pay (such as the Federal and State Government, School District and others) provide pennies on the dollar in relation to what Atherton citizens are paying? "

Because they figure they don't stand a chance against the State of California, U.S. Government, et. al., but maybe can play a game of chicken with the local fire district.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 3, 2019 at 2:37 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When the non-Atherton residents of the Fire District realize that the proposed detachment from the Fire District by the wealthiest town in the entire Nation will require the Fire District to close 2 of its seven stations they will be enraged.

When the Atherton residents realize that their taxes won't go down by even a penny but their level of fire service will go down significantly they also will be enraged.

So why is the Town Council doing this - is it to serve their own egos and so that the Town Manager can have a Fire Chief which will justify his getting an even bigger salary?

As always the only way to provide better AND less expensive fire services is area wide consolidation - which the Fire Board has supported for years. Smaller fire departments simply are neither cost effect or as responsive as larger consolidated agencies.

And if the Town Council really wants to lower their public safety costs they could contract with the Sheriff as do Portola Valley and Woodside and both save $4million/year and get a much broader range and depth of services.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 3, 2019 at 7:51 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

An Atherton resident asked me what this "fiscal equity" thing was all about.

Here was my response:

The so- called Fiscal Equity issue is a sham.

This all began with a Town web page on Municipal Services:
Web Link

The Town has NEVER evaluated the revenues obtained by any of these entities from Atherton residents vs the value of services provided to Atherton residents EXCEPT for the Fire District. For example, Atheron residents pay far more to the school districts than they do to the Fire District and yet the percentage of Atherton students in those school districts is quite low.

In my analysis almost every one of the listed agencies plus the County, State and Federal governments receive far more from Atherton residents than the cost of the services which those agencies provide to Atherton residents.

When the Fire District declined to contribute to the new Town Center the Town Manager then began the fiscal equity sham focussing solely on the Fire District.

Posted by DETACH
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 3, 2019 at 8:34 pm

Well Peter, you seem to be arguing that the Town cannot address an unfair situation with the fire district because other situations may be unfair also? In that case, how could anything ever get fixed? Do you mean no one can "go first"?

Seems like a lot of double talk to me.

The one tilting at windmills is you. Atherton residents don't want to outsource the police or decrease police services. This has been established. The APD is not going anywhere. If anything, it's one hell of a bargain.

We're overpaying the fire district by millions per year. The fire district is flush with cash it doesn't even know what to do with because of these over payments. This needs to get straightened out or WE DETACH and the chips fall where they may.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 3, 2019 at 8:41 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

From the very wealthy Atherton resident:
"We're overpaying the fire district by millions per year"

And you are "overpaying" the Federal government and the State and the County and every other governmental agency.

That is the price of being wealthy in a society which believes that everyone is entitled to the same level of essential services - like emergency services.

Get over it and start paying you fair share!

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 3, 2019 at 8:52 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

PS - Dear Wealthy Atherton resident.

Do you realize that if Atherton detaches that your taxes will not decrease by even a penny?

Do you realize that if Atherton detaches that they will only receive the same amount of tax revenues that the Fire District currently spends in Atherton and the excess will be allocated by the County to more needy agencies?

Do you realize that if Atherton detaches that your level of fire services will go down and your insurance premiums will go up?

So why exactly do you want to shoot yourself in the foot/wallet?

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 8, 2019 at 1:26 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

In my entire professional experience I have never encountered a more selfish and shortsighted group than the five current members of the Atherton Town Council and their Town Manager. They seems prepared to burn down their own house just to spite the Fire District with absolutely zero tax savings to Atherton residents and with a District wide reduction , including Atherton, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, in the quality and timeliness of fire services.

For these six individuals "fiscal equity" is a code phrase for robbing from the poor to give to the rich - they simply don'y feel that as the wealthiest community in the Nation they should pay more for essential services than do the residents of East Palo Alto.

Fortunately few of their fellow Atherton residents share this extremely selfish view.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Dec 13, 2019 at 11:34 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

And after costing taxpayers over $100k here is where the attempted shake down of the Fire District has ended up ( from Town's own Staff Report):

"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; unlikely that Special Legislation would be
supported; and a detachment application through LAFCO, although it could be pursued and
would be processed, would not be supported by LAFCO staff. "

All of these outcomes were known to the Council BEFORE they wasted a single penny of the taxpayers' dollars.

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