The West Hartford Town Council adopted a 285.4 million budget Tuesday night, an increase in spending of 6.37 percent.
By Ronni Newton
The Town Manager’s 2017-2018 (FY2018) budget, with modifications made during the past six weeks since it was proposed on March 8, was adopted Tuesday night in a 6-3 roll call vote, split along party lines.
Total spending under the general fund budget will increase from $268.3 million in FY2017 to $285.4 million in FY2018, an increase of 6.37 percent, but that figure does not tell the complete story.
West Hartford Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said that due to a multitude of factors, the FY2018 budget was “the hardest ever to describe.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mayor Shari Cantor said that in her 12 years on the Town Council, “There has not been a budget as complicated and that has as many moving parts as this one does.” Many of those pieces have longterm consequences, she said.
The real and personal property mill rate will increase from 39.51 to 41.04, and Van Winkle said that the tax increase for an “average” homeowner would be less than 3 percent – but that includes a lot of assumptions. The “average” home in West Hartford is now valued at $320,000 and assessed at $224,000, and the “average” homeowner is also assumed to own two vehicles assessed at $9,000 each. That average homeowner, under the adopted budget, would see taxes increase by $253 or 2.66 percent.
What complicates this year’s budget, in addition to the assumptions about state aid, is revaluation coupled with a state law limiting the motor vehicle mill rate to 32 mills. For FY2017, the motor vehicle mill rate was capped at 37 mills.
Because of revaluation, in FY2018 some taxpayers may actually see reductions in their tax bills, while homes near West Hartford Center, apartments, and other commercial properties have seen dramatic increases in their value which, when coupled with an increase of 1.53 mills, will cause taxes to rise more than the percentage increase in the mill rate.
The budget presented to the Town Council on March 8 would have resulted in a double-digit percentage increase for many taxpayers, but the document approved April 25 has been trimmed in expenditures and the initial assumption that revenue from the state will dramatically decrease has been modified.
The town, in its charter, was required to adopt its budget by Tuesday night, Van Winkle said, even though the state’s budget was not set.
The assumptions ultimately made about state aid were made based on “our best sense,” Van Winkle said, after speaking with “everybody on the face of the earth.” He said he has personally had discussions with the governor, the town’s legislative delegation, representatives of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, and other town managers.
The $285.4 million budget anticipates that Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) will not be cut as dramatically as in the budget Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed on Feb. 8, which was incorporated into Van Winkle’s March 8 proposed budget.
Director of Financial Services Peter Privitera, the town’s CFO, said that after much discussion, an assumption was made to include $1.5 million more in ECS funding above what Malloy had proposed. That figure will be used to mitigate what would otherwise be a larger tax increase, he said. “If we don’t receive that, we will have a hole in the budget.”
Because discussions in the legislature appear to be moving toward maintaining current ECS funding levels, the town is making an assumption that it will receive another $7.1 million more in ECS funding, but is not using that amount to offset taxes. “We are taking that as revenue and setting up a contingency expense account,” Privitera said. Whatever of that portion comes in will go into that contingency fund, which may ultimately be used to mitigate tax bills in the second half of FY2018, or in future fiscal years.
Outside of that $7.1 million that is going straight to the contingency fund, the town’s expenditure increase is 3.7 percent, Privitera said.
Although the $618,000 increases in the MDC ad valorem taxes is included in the adopted budget, Van Winkle removed from consideration the $1.78 million reserve payment the MDC had requested to protect itself against Hartford’s possible insolvency. The town had planned to fund that through surplus. A bill passed unanimously by the State House on April 19, which is likely to be passed by the State Senate, establishes protections for towns and taxpayers in the event any member town fails to pay its portion of the ad valorem tax.
The town’s budget, Privitera said, reflects current services. Although wage freezes are anticipated there are no layoffs, no reductions to public safety, the town is not closing a library or senior center, or eliminating the validated parking at the library or charging for Sunday parking, or changing the way trash is picked up. “We are maintaining the level of service residents have come to depend on,” he said.
One addition that will be made is the hiring of an assistant fire chief, necessitated by the fire department’s recently expanded role to include EMS services. EMS is a revenue-generating operation for the town.
Other changes made to the town manager’s budget include a $300,000 cut in the Education Budget. The Town Council has the authority to cut education spending as a line item, but it will be up to the Board of Education to determine where in its budget those cuts will be made.
The Board of Education adopted a $160.16 million budget on April 5. That budget was an increase of 4.48 percent or $6.87 million from the previous year’s budget. It did not include a possible $5.81 million direct impact of the governor’s proposed budget on the West Hartford Public Schools budget. Moore’s original proposal incorporated $8.01 million of teacher pension costs and an additional $2.2 million in revenue from proposed changes to the state’s special education funding.
Privitera told the Council that the budget is a “conservative approach” that has been looked at from all angles. However, he said that should the town ultimately be responsible for the one-third portion of teacher pension costs, which amounts to more than $8 million, it “would be catastrophic.” The town would be faced with emptying its reserves which would lower its bond rating, or slashing services. Privitera said he believes that scenario is unlikely, since legislative opposition is strong.
Minority Leader Denise Hall said that something has got to change in the state because the governor’s proposed budget is “just irresponsible” and the town still has no idea what it is going to receive in state grants so is forced to overtax, which is unfair to residents, or under-tax and dip into reserve funds. “This is my eighth budget and this is the most insane one I’ve been through.”
Hall said that municipalities need to gain more control over the process. “I will not support the budget because I feel that we’re not tackling the future with it,” she said.
Democrat Ben Wenograd said that he believes the budget “reflects the morals of our residents” and reflects the past promises to take care of residents. “Our budget is respectful of the debt we owe to our seniors,” he said, and will protect senior centers, keep the streets safe, and support the libraries.
Chris Barnes, a Republican, said, “It is my opinion that this budget is not conservative but instead is risky for this town.”
By not slashing spending and instead assuming that the state’s proposed cuts will not materialize, Barnes said the there is a “missed opportunity” to achieve longterm fiscal health. “Our budgets continue to rise beyond the means of many taxpayers,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said that unfortunately, despite sizable grand list growth, there wasn’t enough revenue to meet the needs of the community and it is the Council’s role in adopting a budget to frame the priorities for the community.
Davidoff said that he thinks citizens of West Hartford really engaged in the process this year, expressing their opinions about things that matter to them. The town remains “the best place to live, work, and raise a family,” and this budget preserves that.
It’s up to elected officials to strike a balance, Davidoff said. “When you look at the big picture I think that we’ve done a great job with what we have. I think West Hartford is a great place to live, a great place to call home.”
“I’m proud of this budget and it’s easy to say ‘no’ because nobody wants to raise taxes, nobody wants to pay more for something,” said Democrat Beth Kerrigan. She said that in reality the town doesn’t have a tax increase this year but rather was given less money.
“No doubt we have our challenges. It’s easy to say things needs to change but making that change is so difficult,” Kerrigan said.
Republican Chris Williams said he would vote against the budget because it “utterly fails to make the difficult choices necessary to keep West Hartford vibrant and affordable.”
Williams said the budget “lacks compassion” for residents “because it reflects a policy of choosing not to fix West Hartford’s fundamental problems which cause an ever-increasing tax burden on our residents.”
Collective bargaining, he believes, is a major problem. “Union contract after union contract has been approved at the tax payer expense. As a result our town budget has been held hostage to unfavorable terms that go unchecked. Yes, there are some wage freezes contemplated in this budget but a wage freeze does not address the long term issues that these contracts present us,” Williams said.
Democrat Dallas Dodge said that in his opinion the town’s budget deals responsibly with the state’s problems. I believe “that quality of life is protected by this budget.”
“For me this has been the most difficult budget season in my eight years on the Council,” Democrat Judy Casperson said. The Council’s focus should not be taking away services, but rather making the town better by working together as a team to make choices well in advance of the next budget.
Speaking last, Cantor said it is hard to make major, strategic decisions under pressure, which is what the town has had to do with this budget. It has not been “business as usual,” she said, and when the Town Council spoke with Superintendent Tom Moore he worked to cut $2.1 million from the school budget.
Cantor said she has spent a lot of time testifying at the Legislative Office Building over the past few months.
The budget is as flexible as possible “without making draconian cuts,” she said, but West Hartford is a unique, inner-ring suburb with different challenges and should not be compared to towns like Avon or Glastonbury.
“We are poster children for what a diverse school system does for our students,” Cantor said. “People choose homes here that are more expensive because they want to be in a diverse community, but there are breaking points.”
The town has to make big strategic decisions going forward, Cantor said, and the state budget looks like it’s going to get worse. The Town Council needs strategic input from all of its members, she said.
“We are going to deal with the problem going forward, but we have to take more than six weeks,” Cantor said.
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