Residents Address West Hartford Town Council at Final Budget Hearing before Vote

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The second of two public hearings on West Hartford’s proposed 2019-2020 budget was held on Monday afternoon.

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Town Council held the second of two budget hearings Monday afternoon, and eight residents took the opportunity to share their opinions about the $297.9 million FY2020 budget presented on March 12 by Town Manager Matt Hart.

Residents offered a combination of suggestions for savings, criticism, requests, and praise to the Town Council and the town manager regarding the handling of West Hartford’s finances.

Jonathan Bilmes, a former public works director who recently formed a consulting company focused on materials management, operations, and organizational efficiencies, commended the town on its budgeting, particularly for plans to hire a part-time employee for recycling education.

Bilmes said that the town’s move several years ago to weekly collection of recyclables “apparently placates a small number of residents,” and he suggested reverting to back to biweekly collection as a cost-saving measure. “The cost per ton for collecting this small amount of recyclables is astronomical” under the weekly collection program, Bilmes said.

Bilmes later returned to the podium and offered his approval after realizing that the town manager’s proposed budget that was presented in March did, in fact, include return to biweekly recycling at a savings of $410,000. Public Works Director John Phillips has stated that the increase in materials recycled over the course of the weekly recycling pilot, which began in 2017, was only 1.4 percent, not nearly enough to justify the cost of continuing the program.

Bilmes also suggested that the town enhance its road conditions map to show the status of planned construction on each roadway and the estimated cost, as well as the overall PCI (pavement condition impact). Good roads, he said, “are an indication of good planning and fiscal responsibility.”

Bilmes also noted that in his opinion the funding for a watchdog keeping an eye on the MDC is “woefully inadequate … I know many things that are going on at the MDC that we should be watching.”

Cynthia Pavey said she was representing all of the residents, many of whom are retirees, who reside in the building where she has lived since 2005 – a house converted to studio apartments.

“Every year when the taxes go up our landlords don’t have any choice, they have to go up on the rents,” Pavey said. The landlord sends a letter, informing the residents and apologizing.

Where she lives is “one of the last bastions of affordable housing in West Hartford,” she said. “For a lot of us when the rents go up it starts taking food off our tables, and then they have to cut back on vital necessities.”

Pavey said that the seniors, many of whom don’t use many town services other than trash collection and the library, should not be forced out of town. “I hope that something can be done about the constant tax increases every year,” she said.

Karen Bachman, board president of the 15-year-old West Hartford Women’s Chorale, asked for the Town Council’s support of the organization’s longterm project to purchase risers so that the 90-plus person chorale, whose members are mostly from West Hartford, can perform in town spaces. An allocation of $2,000 would help with a matching grant, she said.

Linda DiNapoli said that she was representing the West Hartford Concerned Citizens. She said she wondered why West Hartford can’t avoid raising taxes, and that the only way to change is through the ballot box – “to see the minority party [become] the majority.”

DiNapoli also suggested that there should be more personnel in departments that raise money – like building and zoning – and added that she wants to see advertisements for summer jobs to give everyone in town a fair shot at being hired.

“West Hartford property taxes are just simply too high,” said George Kennedy, head of the West Hartford Taxpayers Association, particularly when combined with President Trump’s recent tax reform measures which limit the SALT (state and local tax) deduction.

“Seniors are your best financial demographic and with these taxes you are going to be driving them out,” said Kennedy, whose family has lived on Waterside Lane since 1951. He said that in some states the tax rates are lower for seniors because they don’t have kids in the schools – an interesting way of addressing the issue.

Kennedy also suggested that the town create a financial advisory committee of experts to assist in budgeting, rather than just rubber-stamping the recommended budget. “The answer to a better and more transparent budget process – establish a financial advisory board to evaluate the process,” he said.

In addition, a provision for an automatic budget referendum would also facilitate input, Kennedy said.

Resident Judy Allen took the opportunity to expand on some of the statements she made at the previous budget hearing, and urged changes in behavior to help reduce costs, particularly cutting down on food waste which would reduce the cost of trash management.

Allen also urged the Town Council to seriously consider recommendations presented recently by middle school students to ban plastic bags, along with straws and disposable bottles.

“Even small changes make a difference, and I don’t want my taxes to go up,” Allen said.

Joann Palmer said she is concerned about the 8.1 percent increase in the allocation due to the MDC. She said it’s difficult to get to Hartford at night to attend an annual meeting, and for safety reasons urged the Town Council to insist that a meeting be held in West Hartford.

Mayor Shari Cantor said that the MDC’s consumer advocate is already scheduled to hold a meeting in Room 400 of West Hartford Town Hall on May 2, from 2-3 p.m.

“We’re basically happy citizens except for the taxes,” said Ed Siegel, which are increasing at a rate higher than inflation.

“It would be beneficial to the town and people like me,” Siegel said, and a show of respect for the taxpayers, for the Town Council to make a statement that taxes will not go up this year.

“Make a public statement that you are going to do taxpayers a favor and pass a budget with zero increase,” Siegel said.

Just four people spoke at the Town Council’s first budget hearing, held on March 21.

The Council will meet to adopt the 2019-2020 budget on Tuesday, April 23, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

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