The West Hartford Town Council will adopt the town’s budget on Monday, April 25, but the town manager’s original proposal has been modified in response to uncertainty surrounding state grant money.
By Ronni Newton
When the West Hartford Town Council votes on the 2016-2017 general fund budget on Monday night, they will be voting on a budget that has been modified from what Town Manager Ron Van Winkle first proposed on March 8.
The revised budget just released by Van Winkle totals $267.9 million, reduced from the $269.3 million figure proposed in March. The 2015-2016 budget was $258 million.
“This started out as a very sound budget and one that was one of the best starting points by the town manager,” Mayor Scott Slifka said about the March 8 budget proposal.
Now, faced with a state budget crisis, the town is anticipating a potentially multi-million dollar cut in state grant money, and has been left in a difficult position.
“We have no idea what they’re going to do,” Van Winkle said of the state legislature. Slifka also said that the state “does not know where it’s going” on the budget.
What may directly impact West Hartford is that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s unprecedented second budget, released this month, cuts approximately $3.2 million in grants that were contained in the governor’s initial budget. In between those two budget proposals, the legislature’s appropriations committee also unveiled a budget plan that would have given West Hartford even more funding than the town would have received under the governor’s initial proposal.
Van Winkle said he recommended changes to the Finance and Budget Committee on Monday, and all nine members of the Town Council were in attendance. The changes result in a decrease of expenditures of approximately $1.4 million and anticipate an increase in $118,000 from conveyances, resulting in an overall $1.529 million reduction in taxes from his original proposal.
Van Winkle said he has not received any additional proposed changes from Council members.
“We took a middle of the road approach,” said Deputy Mayor and Finance and Budget Committee Chair Shari Cantor, in estimating that $1.5 million in state funding will be cut.
“We are fortunate in West Hartford that we have some great professionals running our Finance Department who are diligently keeping track of the permutations in projected state municipal aid. Budgets are difficult enough without having to constantly update assumptions,” Minority Leader Denise Hall said.
“With the changes that we have proposed, the average tax increase will drop to 1.67 percent,” Van Winkle said. That “average” is based on a homeowner with a residence assessed at $224,000 and two vehicles assessed at $9,000 each. Van Winkle’s March budget proposal calculated a 1.96 percent increase for the “average” homeowner.
The proposed mill rate is now 39.51 for real and personal property, down from 39.63 proposed in March. Beginning this year the mill rate for automobiles is capped at 32 mills by the state, which makes it difficult to calculate an average tax.
“Residents will have a difficult time determining the net effect of the change in their taxes because of the new state cap on the mill rate for motor vehicles,” said Hall. “The mill rate on their car will go down, and then the mill rate on their real property will go up. They have to look at the net of two mill rates, and the extent to which they are impacted will depend on the value of their car.” The number of cars in a household will also impact the net tax change.
“Once we adopt the mill rate we can’t change it. We’re done,” Van Winkle said. April 25 is statutorily the last day that the town can adopt its budget, and waiting for the state legislature to act is not an option.
Last year, after the 2015-2016 budget was adopted, West Hartford received $1.6 million in additional ECS funding from the state. In part because of that increased revenue, the town has enough of a surplus to cover $2 million in grant cuts, Van Winkle said. Beyond that additional adjustments to expenditures may be needed, Van Winkle said.
“There are lots of communities that are struggling, but West Hartford will be in good shape,” Van Winkle said.
The changes that Van Winkle made to his budget include $350,000 reduction to the school budget. That change will be accommodated by flat funding, rather than increasing, the reserves in the West Hartford Public Schools health care expenditures fund. Director of Finance and Planning Chip Ward advised the Board of Education on April 19 of the likely change, but said that with a $16 million reserve the fund is in “pretty good financial shape.”
Other modifications to the town budget include decreasing the appropriation for gasoline because of lower prices, reducing the termination payout fund by $100,000, and not transferring $300,000 of expenses from the Leisure Services fund to the town’s general fund. A part-time community services position was removed from the budget, resulting in $25,000 in savings.
“The rest area a bit here and there, sharpening the pencil but it adds up,” said Van Winkle.
Slifka said the budget modifications are “a very appropriate response to the times in which we are living.”
Cantor said that from what she has been told, the Senate and House will not permit the entire $3.2 million in cuts, but the town’s surplus allows for flexibility and she is comfortable with the town manager’s latest proposal.
“Next year, who knows what the State will do,” Hall said. She said the state needs people in the legislature “who not only have a finance background but have experience with municipal budgeting.”
The budget is not created in a vacuum, Cantor said, and the town has maintained its rainy day fund and positioned itself for the future. “We have continued to invest in infrastructure, in education. It’s important for today and the future of the town that we are still doing that,” she said.
“We’re going to ride this bend,” said Cantor.
The budget will be adopted at the Town Council meeting on Monday, April 25. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., following a public hearing that begins at 7:25 p.m. on an ordinance permitting increased density in the Central Business (BC) zone.
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