Viewpoint: Atherton residents – let your voices be heard about town’s policies on taxation & “fiscal equity”

by Peter Carpenter on February 13, 2020

Editor’s note: Peter Carpenter, author of this post, is a former Director of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District (2002-2018) who lived in Atherton for 36 years before relocating to Menlo Park last year.

Over five years ago, the Atherton Town Council made two incredible decisions. First, they appointed themselves as the overseers of how every other local, special district, county, state and federal agency spends the taxes paid by Atherton residents, and second, they decided in their role as the self appointed fiduciary for “their Atherton residents” that those residents should no longer participate in our nation’s long tradition of progressive taxation.

The Atherton Town Council then began to identify agencies which it believed collected more taxes from Atherton residents than those agencies spent serving Atherton residents. This is an easy task since Atherton residents pay more in taxes to every local, state and federal agency than they receive in services from those entities. The Town Council then proposed that any such “excess” be given to the Town of Atherton – but not back to the Atherton taxpayers. The Town Council calls this concept “fiscal equity”.

In all of its discussions of “fiscal equity” over the last five years neither the Town Council nor the Town Manager has never uttered a single word about the impact of their proposed “fiscal equity” actions on the residents of the less well off communities from which they propose to take away property tax revenues.

Its first target was the Menlo Park Fire Protection District. The Fire District’s 29 square mile service area covers the town of Atherton, cities of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, unincorporated areas of San Mateo County and is on contract to the SLAC National Accelerator and Laboratories. The Fire District has been serving our community for 104 years, and they provide the same highest quality and effective levels of emergency and fire services to everyone in the Fire District, regardless of their income or wealth, through a network of seven fire stations, 12 emergency response units and a team over 100 dedicated and highly proficient first responders.

The Town Council claims that the Fire District receives $8 million a year more in property taxes from Atherton residents than the Fire District spends serving those residents. Of course these tax payments are based on the value of the homes owned by those Atherton residents and as the wealthiest community in the nation those homes tend to have high assessed property values. The Town Council then proposed that the Fire District simply give the Town that $8 million every year. Fortunately, the Fire Board declined that totally unjustified request.

Undeterred by the Fire Board’s refusal to just give it the requested $8 million a year, the Town Council is now proceeding to find a way to “detach” the Town from the Fire District. Such a detachment, which is highly unlikely to ever succeed, would reduce the Fire District’s budget by the entire $12 million that Atherton residents pay in property taxes to the Fire District. That loss of $12 million would greatly reduce the level of fire and emergency services that the Fire District would then be able to provide to the other 85,000 residents of the Fire District.

The $12 million in property taxes that Atherton residents pay in property taxes to the Fire District would still be paid by Atherton residents and their property taxes would not go down by a single penny. By law the County would then reallocate the entire $12 million to all the taxing agencies in San Mateo County with Atherton receiving only an amount equal to what the Fire District currently spends providing services to Atherton residents – about $4-5 million according to the Town’s own Matrix study.

Atherton would then be required by law to provide the same level of service that the Fire District was providing – without the huge economies of scale enjoyed by a larger and more efficient fire agency. The Town proposes to do this with a single fire station compared to the five Fire District stations that currently serve Atherton. And the only way that would work would be if the Town was able to negotiate a Mutual Aid agreement with the Fire District!

Why would the Fire District’s taxpayers ever approve of such a mutual aid agreement given that a single station fire department would never be willing to reciprocate by sending its only fire engine outside the Town which would leave the Town uncovered and that the Town had devastated the Fire District’s ability to serve its non- Atherton residents?

Every Atherton resident with whom I have spoken gladly accepts our nation’s long tradition of progressive taxation wherein the wealthy pay far more than their “fair share” in order to provide essential services to everyone, especially those who are less well off.

Every agency that is on the Atherton Town Council’s “fiscal equity” hit list is already governed by officials who were elected by Atherton residents to represent their interests.

It is time for the residents of Atherton to tell the Town Council to do
what they were elected to do — manage the Town’s affairs — and to quit bringing shame on Atherton by trying to take tax revenues that serve less well off communities in order to fatten the Town’s coffers.

All of our elected officials from Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and the unincorporated areas of San Mateo County served by the Fire District and each of the concerned residents of the Fire District should attend the next Fire Board meeting which will be held on Feb 18 at 7:00 pm at the District’s Station 3 located at 32 Almendral Avenue to speak out against the Town Council’s misguided and selfish efforts.

One Comment

Jim Lewis February 15, 2020 at 5:11 pm

An issue that has continued for five years or more implies that the parties are either unwilling or unable to resolve it themselves. Thus it may be high time, if not long overdue, for a 1) mediator, 2) facilitator, 3) arbitrator, 4) peace maker, 5) retired judge or 6) equivalent to help decision makers resolve it. Disputes with unresolved issues can be seen at an individual level, such as in a divorce, with neighborhoods and continuing upwards at an international level. Third parties can sometimes break the log jam and settle on a compromise acceptable to the parties. This issue may be one of them. What do they have to lose in trying.

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