Grand jury finds Menlo Park fire district not prepared for future growth

A newly released Grand Jury report is raising questions about the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's planning for the future, along with its spending and taking financial contributions from Facebook.

The Menlo Park Fire Protection District serves 90,000 residents in Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and parts of unincorporated San Mateo County.

The San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury Thursday, released a report that found the Fire District doesn't have a strategic plan for future growth but is still making millions dollars worth of land purchases.

"The Grand Jury is concerned the District is not engaged in the kind of strategic planning that it needs to ensure resources being used efficiently," said Grand Jury Foreperson Richard Edminster.

Edminster says spending without a plan is a concern.

According to the Grand Jury report, the Fire District has spent $21.9 million dollars for 5 property purchases in the last 2 years.

That includes an 18-hundred square foot Atherton home which sits right next to Station 3 which the Fire District bought it in 2017 for $4.6 million dollars but has no plans to develop for at least 10 years.

"We're not saying the money has been spent inappropriately but we're saying it has been spent without planning documents, strategic planning documents to ensure it is being spent appropriately," said Edminster.

"I think that's a pretty prudent purchase," said Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman.

Chief Schapelhouman says while they don't need the property now, it came up for sale and it's better to have the property for when the need for expansion arises.

The report also questioned the Fire District's decision to solicit money from Facebook after it was denied impact fees from surrounding municipalities.

"The district went to the cities and requested the cities impose impact fees on that new development but they couldn't demonstrate to the cities that they actually needed the money," said Edminster.

In 2015, the Fire District received $300,000 from Facebook it says it used to speed up traffic lights during emergencies.

"We believe these are impact fees. We feel people incurring the expenses should be paying for them, not the ordinary taxpayers in the district," said Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board President Chuck Bernstein.

The jury found "accepting donations from Facebook, or any other resident of the District, raises ethical issues.

"Many jurisdictions have found that it raises the concern of preferential treatment and it may it not in the public interest," said Edminster.

"I don't think we treat Facebook any differently than we treat any other business," said Schapelhouman.

The Grand Jury's recommendations include the Fire District develop a strategic plan, re-examine the Atherton property purchase and develop a policy to not accept donations from companies or individuals under the District's enforcement.

The jury did not find anything illegal in terms of spending and praised the quality of the fire response.
The foreman says it's the lack of planning that raises questions.

The Fire District Chief and Board President say they are now taking steps to develop a strategic plan.
But both disagreed with the jury's recommendations to re-examine the Atherton home purchase and to create a new policy to not accept money from businesses.

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