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Opportunities Remain for West Hartford Residents to Comment on Budget

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The impact of the state budget presented by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, if passed, would have an extremely negative impact on the Town of West Hartford, with approximately $14.5 million in state aid reductions to the town leading to significant proposed increased for taxpayers.

By Ronni Newton

Interest in West Hartford’s budget has been intense this year, perhaps at an all-time high, with concern about the trade-off between a major tax increase vs. a cut in education programs and services, or town services, that people greatly value, and several more opportunities exist for public comment about the budget before legislators approve the spending plans in April.

At a public forum held last Thursday at Charter Oak International Academy on both the town and the school budget, Town Council and Board of Education members heard from more than 50 residents, most of whom voiced support for specific education-related programs or for key town services such as the libraries.

That forum was attended by crowd of several hundred – many of whom were teachers and some of whom were students – and was a testament to concern about the budgets proposed by both Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore and Town Manager Ron Van Winkle. The town manager’s budget incorporates the school budget, and if passed as proposed would increase taxes by a total of 10.3 percent – an approximately 7 percent for residential taxpayers and more than three times that increase for businesses.

Some residents, who been engaging in lively debates on Facebook and other social media platforms, are unclear about when and to whom they can voice their comments and opinions as the end of West Hartford’s budget season approaches.

“We welcome comment on the budget. We read every email,” Mayor Shari Cantor said Monday morning.

“But what is important to remember is that the Town Council does not have line item or program decision-making authority on the education budget. By statute our authority is limited to an overall total educational budget appropriation,” Cantor said.

Cantor said that she and other Council members have received myriad emails related to the school budget and specific educational programs. “We don’t want people to think we make those decisions,” she said. It has nothing to do with what individual Council members might want to do about school programs, but what their authority is.

Cantor encourages people to email their concerns, but to be sure to also address those emails to Board of Education members if the issues are related to the school budget.

Emailed comments on the superintendent’s budget should be sent directly to [email protected]. Email addresses for individual Town Council members can be found through this link. All emails become part of the official public record, Town Clerk Essie Labrot said.

Several more opportunities remain to comment in person regarding the budget, and it is important to understand what items can be addressed at which of the upcoming hearings.

The Town Council has two more public hearings on the town manager’s budget, one of which is on Monday, March 27, at 6 p.m. in Town Hall Room 314.

Since the Town Council cannot make decisions on education-related programs, only items related to the overall town budget or services should be addressed.

Labrot said that a sign-up sheet for the public will be available in Room 314 beginning at 4 p.m. for those who would like to guarantee an opportunity to speak. Speakers can leave and return at the beginning of the hearing, she said.

Each speaker will have 3 minutes, or 5 minutes if they are representing a group, Labrot said.

West Hartford Community Television (WHC-TV) will broadcast the Monday, March 27 meeting live, beginning at 6 p.m. WHC-TV will also be live with the remainder of this week’s Town Council and Board of Education meetings and the 2 p.m. Town Council budget hearing on April 5.

The budget will not be a topic of discussion at the Town Council meeting on March 28, which begins at 7:30 p.m. in Room 314. The standing rules of the Town Council limit public comment only to items on the agenda for that particular meeting. The agenda for the March 28 meeting will include a discussion of an ordinance related to food trucks, and several committee reports.

The final Town Council budget hearing is Wednesday, April 5, at 2 p.m. in Town Hall Room 314. By that date, the superintendent’s budget will have been adopted. The school budget vote is April 4.

The Town Council is scheduled to adopt the FY2018 budget on April 25. That meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

The Board of Education has one more public hearing on the budget, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 29, in Town Hall Room 314.

A final budget workshop will follow the hearing, but although the public can attend the workshop, they are not permitted to participate.

The Board of Education will adopt its budget on April 4 at a meeting that begins at 7 p.m.

Following adoption, the superintendent’s budget can be addressed only as a line item on the town manager’s budget. The Town Council can vote to increase or decrease the amount, but only the Board of Education can determine how to specifically allocate those changes.

“This is a challenging budget. They all are, but this year is in particular because there are so many unknowns,” Cantor said.

She said there’s lots of swing, and as Town Manager Ron Van Winkle has stated multiple times, at some point in April there needs to be a “best assumption” made about what the state legislature is going to do since it will have such a profound impact on West Hartford’s finances.

On March 9, about 200 people attended a forum with West Hartford’s legislative delegation, expressing their opinions and learning more about the state budget process.

While the legislature is far from making any decisions, and the Appropriations Committee won’t release the proposed state budget until April 27, Cantor said that there is increasing pressure to incorporate some of the ideas presented by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) related to diversifying the revenue stream. “Increasing pressure on property tax doesn’t make us competitive. We need more diversification in revenue,” she said.

Cantor said that while all have a responsibility to reel in costs, West Hartford has already done a good job. “We are leaner than comparable communities. We provide a decent amount of services and have done things in a creatively frugal way.”

An unfortunate part of the reality, and one which has a major impact, is the expense of pensions and benefits negotiated decades ago. “Those are our obligations to fulfill, and that’s what we face every year,” Cantor said.

Regarding public input, Cantor said, “We have to hear and want to hear from the public.”

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