Friends and Neighbors,
This is my semi-annual letter to Atherton residents to share my perspective on issues before the Council and to seek your views. My comments do not speak for other members of the Council in any way. Please don’t hesitate to respond to this email with your thoughts and concerns. I respond to every email or phone call that I get from an Atherton resident.
In this email, I address the pandemic, the November election for Atherton and two very large issues: the Fire Services issue (should we leave the Menlo Park Fire Protection District), the Caltrain Station issue (should we support Caltrain to close the Atherton Station).
I hope that you and your family are safe and well during this extremely challenging time. So that I don’t get complacent, I keep reminding myself that this pandemic is a once in a hundred year event and that in 1918-20 the worst impact of that flu pandemic occurred in late fall and early winter after the disease became prevalent in the spring and summer. Of course, I hope that doesn’t happen this year, but I use that information to prepare myself for more difficult times. I am proud that Atherton has taken this pandemic extremely seriously and that we have been very conservative, while working to enable re-engagement where it makes sense. The result has been no known infections among our staff and greatly reduced scheduled use of Holbrook-Palmer Park, while enabling construction to resume with appropriate rules and precautions to protect construction workers and residents.
The November Election for Atherton
This November’s election will be the first election for the Atherton Council in six years. I believe that there were no challengers in the past two elections because the Council has been extremely effective, collaborative and responsive to the electorate. This Council has been the longest standing Council (6 years) in Atherton history. Also, it is only the second Council (the other one being the first council that was elected in 1923) where all five members were originally elected vs. appointed. Unfortunately, the Fire Services issue has severely divided our Council. I hope that this will be addressed in this election. Diana Hawkins Manuelian, a new candidate, and Elizabeth Lewis, our incumbent councilwoman, strongly oppose detachment from MPFPD and I am, therefore, supporting them. If you are interested in their views, please visit their webpages and especially look at Diana’s excellent video. I believe that the re-election of Elizabeth and the election of Diana would be a good step for Atherton.
Diana’s Web page — http://dianahawkinsmanuelian.com
Diana’s Video on YouTube — https://youtu.be/hrdiUt-i86s
Elizabeth’s Web Page – http://www.elizabethlewis2020.com
Fire Services Issue
The Fire Services Issue is rooted in the fact that Atherton residents pay approximately $13M to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District (MPFPD) in property taxes, representing about 16.5% of our property tax dollars. This compares to about 8.5% that goes to the Town of Atherton and roughly 16% that goes to your elementary school district. As the total amount of property tax paid by Atherton residents has increased over the past 20 years, the 16.5% of taxes paid to the Fire District has increased, but the cost of delivering services to Atherton hasn’t increased at a commensurate rate. The Fire District has five stations that provide significant service to Atherton, one is in Atherton and the other four totally surround us from Alameda, to downtown Menlo Park, to Middlefield Road to North Fair Oaks. Over the past 20 years and looking into the future, the critical new investments by the Fire District have been in other portions of the district, not in Atherton. The result of these taxes and expenses is that Atherton residents provide approximately 35% of MPFPD tax revenue and the cost to deliver services to Atherton is somewhere around 10% of all MPFPD expenses.
Some residents have observed this discrepancy for years, but the problem is that the property tax rates were set up by Proposition 13 in 1978 and can only be changed by an act of the state legislature. One of the first things that I did upon being elected to the Council in 2013 was to meet with Jerry Hill to explore the likelihood of changing that tax allocation. The answer: absolutely no way.
MPFPD is a district that serves Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and unincorporated portions of San Mateo County, such as North Fair Oaks and Ladera, among others. The proponents of detachment say that the way to rectify the “inequity” of Atherton contributing roughly 35% of the MPFPD tax revenue and receiving much less of the service expense is by leaving the district and finding another services provider or threatening to leave the district in order to force the district to enter into a contract where the Fire Board would agree to share with Atherton some of taxes legally awarded to them under Proposition 13.
In my opinion, there are four significant problems with this proposed “solution”:
First, Atherton gets excellent service from MPFPD. No one disputes this, but many object to how much we pay. Detachment proponents observe that there is only one station in Atherton and that we would get better service if there were a second station; however, in addition to the station on Almendral, there are four MPFPD stations that literally surround Atherton. No other fire services provider could begin to provide coverage as thorough as that provided by MPFPD.
Second, the only alternatives to MPFPD are Redwood City Fire, Woodside Fire, Cal Fire and Atherton organizing its own fire department. No one is advocating for Atherton to form its own fire dept. There is no evidence that one of the other districts would want to take on serving Atherton, given the dispute with MPFPD and due to the fact that both RWC and Woodside Fire departments are represented by the same union as MPFPD.
Third, even if Atherton were to leave MPFPD over this tax and expense discrepancy, Atherton residents would not pay one cent less of property taxes. We are required to pay our 1% of property taxes under Prop 13, no matter what. In a detachment, MPFPD would continue to get some of our taxes for pensions and other committed expense, our new services provider would get an amount approximately equal to the cost of services and the remainder of our property taxes would go to San Mateo County to be redistributed to all of the tax recipients today. The amount of those allocations would be agreed to in a tax agreement to be negotiated between Atherton and the SMC Board of Supervisors. The consequence is that detachment would involve zero reduction of tax payments by Atherton taxpayers and Atherton would assume significant risk by with replacing MPFPD with another services provider.
Fourth, detachment would be devastating to MPFPD, resulting in massive furloughs of staff and an enormous reduction of service to the rest of the district. The community that would be most devastated by Atherton’s departure would be East Palo Alto and, in my opinion, there is no way to justify Atherton’s removal of taxes from MPFPD to the enormous detriment of EPA.
Essentially, I look at our Fire Services situation as I look at insurance: it is expensive, but necessary. Of course, I’d like MPFPD to do some additional things for Atherton that are within its calling. I believe that it is possible to negotiate some benefits within their areas of responsibility, but I don’t believe that they will do that so long as the threat of detachment is hanging over them. I am also certain that there is absolutely no way that they would agee to a tax agreement to divert to Atherton any of the property tax than they are legally entitled to under Prop 13. None of us like how much property tax we pay, but it is not something that our City Council can control. We pay more taxes to all other agencies than we receive in services. To me it’s essentially insurance and MPFPD is positioned to give us the best possible fire and medical services and they have done that.
Finally, I know that for an actual application for detachment to move forward, there has to be another service provider who is willing to replace MPFPD. I don’t believe that there is one and even if there were, I am certain that the Board of Supervisors would never approve a tax agreement with Atherton that would effectively be to the detriment of East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and unicorporated county areas. Because I don’t believe that there is a realistic possibility that Atherton could in fact detach, it is a waste of staff time and taxpayer dollars for us to be considering detachment and this has generated serious ill will with MPFPD.
The Caltrain Station Issue
Caltrain has avoided investment in the Atherton station for years. Due to the very low daily ridership from the Atherton station, Caltrain closed the station to weekday service in 2005. Weekend service averages 114 riders a day. The Atherton station requires passengers to cross the southbound tracks to get on a northbound train. Consequently, trains moving in the opposite direction from a train in the station must stop and “holdout” from the station until the train in the station has departed. With electrification Caltrain must reconfigure the Atherton station to eliminate this “holdout” configuration. Caltrain estimates that it will cost $30M to upgrade this “holdout station” configuration. Accordingly, in order to avoid a $30M capital expense and because we have very low ridership and because Caltrain would save 5-10 seconds for every train trip without the Atherton Station, Caltrain wants to close the Atherton Station.
Atherton has had train service since 1863 and our longest serving council member, Malcolm Dudley, was instrumental in getting Caltrain funded when it was first formed. There is a lot of history here. I believe that the station is a significant benefit to Atherton residents who use it and it is certainly an asset that is valuable to all of us, so it makes no sense to consider supporting its closure unless there are significant benefits offered to Atherton in return.
1. Obtain significant safety improvements by removing the existing station platform, fencing off the tracks with an attractive metal fence and installing quad gates across Watkins Ave. that would be similar to what we have on Fair Oaks Lane.
2. Enter into a Maintenance Agreement to enable Atherton to include the Caltrain property and station into the Town Center and obtain much needed additional parking.
3. Explore the SFPUC and Caltrain rights of way next to the tracks south of Watkins to build a bike/pedestrian pathway to enable residents to more easily get to the MP station.
Of these benefits proposed by Caltrain, the use of the Caltrain property to improve parking and the installation of quad gates on Watkins are significant. We definitely need more parking at the new Town Center, and we could incorporate the train station into the infrastructure in a very useful and aesthetically pleasing manner. The installation of quad gates on Watkins would enable Atherton to declare a Quiet Zone throughout the Town, meaning Caltrain engineers would be prevented from blasting the train horn anywhere in Atherton, unless there is an emergency. Extending the Fair Oaks Quiet Zone through Watkins could motivate Menlo Park to establish a Quiet Zone at Encinal Ave. Establishing the Fair Oaks Quiet Zone during my first term as mayor was the single most beneficial thing that we did during that term as a Council.
Given that Caltrain has the legal right to close the station without providing any benefits to Atherton, my judgement is we should obtain these benefits and make the best of an unfortunate situation. We all know that Caltrain is experiencing extremely difficult times as a result of the pandemic (their ridership numbers have dropped more than 90%), so we have to see how this plays out. I believe that they will find the $7-9 million that they estimate it will cost to provide these stated benefits to Atherton.
A quick comment on the Census: The 2020 Census is about to close. For those who have not yet completed the Census, you can go to my2020census.gov to fill out your questionnaire. For questions, call (844) 330-2020 (English) or (844) 468-2020.
Mayor, Town of Atherton and member of the City Council