If town wants to ditch the fire district, it won’t be cheap

Menlo Park Fire Station 1 at 300 Middlefield Road. Photo courtesy of the fire district.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Were Atherton to divorce from the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, which currently serves the town, it would cost the town at least $14.2 million, according to a report released yesterday.

The fire district is largely funded by property taxes from the areas it serves — Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and the surrounding areas of unincorporated San Mateo County such as North Fair Oaks and West Menlo.

According to the town-commissioned report from Matrix Consulting Group, in the financial year that ended in June 2016, Atherton paid roughly a third of the property taxes that fund the district — $11.8 million.

The four areas the fire district covers paid the following in property taxes in the fiscal year that ended in June 2016, to the district:

• Menlo Park: $17.5 million

• Atherton: $11.8 million

• Unincorporated county: $5.8 million

• East Palo Alto: $2.1 million

The report shows that while the town’s taxpayers spend $11.8 million in property taxes to fund the district, the district spent $4.6 million on Atherton.

This means that Atherton is subsidizing the other parts of the district $7.2 million annually.

And while Atherton may pay more towards the district, according to a map in a report from City Manager George Rodericks, much of the service is in East Palo Alto, North Fair Oaks and main thoroughfares in the district.

Sharing the wealth

“The residents of the Town of Atherton, of whom I am one, gladly pay more for national defense, state, county, school districts, etc. than we receive in direct benefits from any of those entities. Doing so is an integral part of our being part of a larger community and not a self-serving 1%. The same, I believe, is true of our support for community wide fire services,” district board member Peter Carpenter said.

Aside from diving into how much the fire district spends on Atherton, the report also examines how much it would be for Atherton to have its own fire department.

According to the study, it would cost Atherton at least $14.2 million, with much of that going toward potentially purchasing Station 3 from the fire district for an estimated $10 million and spending $1.5 million to create a station at Holbrook-Palmer Park. Another $2 million would be spent on purchasing engines.

Cost of operating a town-only department

The report cautions that there could be even more costs to get the department up and running, since the fire district would have to provide coverage while the new department was being created.

Atherton would have to hire 27 people to make up the fire department, 12 firefighters, six fire engineers, six fire captains, a fire chief, deputy chief and an administrative assistant. Salaries and benefits would cost the town about $5.9 million.

The report estimates that once the town’s department is created, it would cost Atherton about $6.8 million a year to run.

Even if Atherton stopped being part of the district, it would still have to have a partnership with the fire district in order to adequately serve all of Atherton’s residents.

What’s next?

Atherton council will discuss the study on Wednesday and may bring it up against at its Feb. 21 meeting before deciding what its next move will be, if any. One option Rodericks gives in his report is to hire a consultant to see if residents want to do anything regarding their fire services.

The question over how much Atherton residents are paying towards the district and whether or not that’s fair first came up in September 2016, when Rodericks recommended that a third party conduct an evaluation on how much Atherton residents spend on the fire district.

When the council discussed the study on September 7, 2016, Rodericks said the town was not seeking to detach itself from the fire department or to get revenue from the fire district. Town officials simply wanted to know what the cost is to provide fire services to Atherton, and town officials weren’t getting that information from the fire district.