State Senator Beth Bye and State Representatives Andy Fleischmann, Derek Slap, and Joe Verrengia heard from West Hartford residents at a forum hosted Thursday night by the League of Women Voters.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford’s legislative delegation told residents that they had come to listen to concerns and gather ideas regarding the state budget proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and that’s exactly what the four legislators did Thursday night.
“My priority is to stand up for West Hartford,” State Sen. Beth Bye said, and the town is being challenged by the governor’s budget. “We are here to listen to you, really to listen to you.”
Bye joined State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, State Rep. Derek Slap, and State Rep. Joe Verrengia Thursday night at Charter Oak International Academy at a public forum designed to educate and solicit input from residents regarding the state budget proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Feb. 8.
Deb Polun from the League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford moderated the discussion which was attended by approximately 200 people.
Since the release of Malloy’s budget, residents have been nervous about potential tax increases and/or cuts in services, and this week have seen the impact on West Hartford.
West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore presented his budget to the Board of Education on Tuesday night, proposing an 8.44 percent increase and listing potential cost savings to be considered. Town Manager Ron Van Winkle presented the entire town budget – which incorporates the education budget – on Wednesday night, proposing a 10.3 percent tax increase and outlining cost savings that could be achieved through various cuts in staff or services. The governor’s budget, with cuts in state aid of approximately $14.5 million, is the major driver in both the education and the overall town budget.
Slap said he doesn’t think the governor’s budget works for the Town of West Hartford, for other cities around the state, for the schools, or for the seniors. “This aggression will not stand,” Slap said, quoting a line from the movie “The Big Lebowski.”
The forum included a brief presentation of the state budget which takes as $1.28 billion deficit into the next fiscal year, and of which 53 percent is fixed costs. The governor’s budget proposes $700 million of labor concessions – or the alternative of 4,200 layoffs if those don’t happen, it reworks the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula, changes other education grants, and transfers one-third of the teacher pension costs to the municipalities. If approved, the retirement cost transfer would push $8.01 million of costs back to West Hartford taxpayers in the upcoming fiscal year.
“The day the governor’s budget came out I really felt like I got punched in the gut,” said West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor in a brief address to residents at the forum. Because of the timing of the approval of the state’s budget, which she said if passed by June will be a “miracle,” the town is going to have to make some assumptions. “We will need your help, your input, your involvement, your support, and your faith that we are in this all together.”
All four legislators vehemently made promises – repeated several times – that they would not vote in favor of the governor’s proposed budget.
The legislators responded to a few advance questions submitted in writing, but mostly they listened and took notes on what was said by the 36 residents who got up to speak.
One of the ideas shared was creation of a local sales tax, something that several of the legislators fear would drive more people away from cities. Bye said she favored the idea because it would give West Hartford a more diverse revenue stream and take the pressure off property taxes.
Education was a key topic of discussion, and Fleischmann said that what the governor has proposed “is extremely dangerous to our school system and to schools across the state.”
“What the governor did with the education dollars totally submarines the idea that you can have a successful rim suburb,” Bye said. It’s punishing to West Hartford and there’s no fair formula that would have penalized the town the way this budget has, she said.
One resident suggested closing the “bad schools” rather than throwing money at 28 towns while cutting ECS to the other 141 districts. West Hartford Education Association President Ted Goerner said Moore’s budget is “probably a best case scenario and even that is grim.” He asked the legislators to completely reject the governor’s budget and start over, and perhaps tax some of the “hedge fund billionaires who are profiting from charter schools.”
Residents also spoke out in support of specific programs in the town’s schools, including full-day kindergarten and QuEST. A King Philip Middle School seventh-grader spoke in favor of the music program, stating that “cutting it would be a mistake. That’s how many people express themselves.”
Tim Decker, who teaches at Conard and is also a resident and a West Hartford Public Schools parent, suggested moving some of the bureaucracy, like standardized testing, out of public education. He also suggested a state education tax to shift some of the burden from property owners.
A large contingent of Family Resource Center supporters also attended the forum, with several making statements and others standing and holding signs.
“We really need support for children with special needs,” said Brooke Daly, whose 4-year-old son Finn has Down syndrome and has been thriving at the Early Learning Center at Whiting Lane.
Several residents spoke of the importance of the home care program for elders. “Do you have any ideas to give to us so we can breathe easily? Tell him I say don’t mess with home health care. Leave it alone!” said one resident.
Chris Barnes, who is a member of the West Hartford Town Council, said he was glad to hear that the legislators oppose the shifting of teacher pension costs to the towns. “It’s actually unlawful. It has to be funded by the state, by the contributions of the teachers, by the bond funds,” Barnes said. He said that one analysis would indicate that in the next 15 years West Hartford would have to spend $43 million funding just that one-third share. “The governor doesn’t have right to do that … it’s a time bomb that the towns and the cities cannot handle.”
“It sounds like the sequence for budgeting is backwards,” said Ed Siegal, because the towns have to pass their budgets before knowing the final state aid figure. He asked if the state could work with towns to reverse the sequence, and Bye explained that a bill which would have given towns more time to pass their budgets did not pass yesterday.
Siegal also said the governor’s budget is going to drive people and businesses out of the state. “[The state needs] to come up with a budget that reverses that trend.”
The final speaker asked what can be done to get the governor to pay attention to West Hartford.
Email and call Malloy, and let him to know that “shifting costs to towns like ours is going to lead to cuts to services that we feel are vital or increase property taxes that are already too burdensome,” Fleischmann responded.
Verrengia said that plenty of hard work lies ahead. “We can’t stress enough to communicate your concerns to the governor.”
“Our job is to bring enough funding to West Hartford so that property taxes don’t drive people out,” Bye said.
The governor is going to feel a lot of pressure, said Slap. “Offer real solutions. Stay involved with us,” he said.
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!