In a vote split along party lines, the West Hartford Town Council adopted a $287.8 million budget Tuesday night, an increase in spending of 3.3 percent.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Town Council voted 6-3 Tuesday night to adopt the FY2019 budget, with a uniform mill rate of 41.00 mills, a reduction of the current mill rate of 41.04 mills for real and personal property and a rate lower than the 41.54 mill rate that Town Manager Matt Hart initially proposed in March.
The mill rate for motor vehicles for FY2019 will also be 41.00, a 28 percent increase over last year’s rate of 32.00 mills for motor vehicles.
The vote saw a clear divide along party lines, with Democrats lauding the cut in the mill rate and a responsible budget that maintains valued services for the diverse community while keeping tax increases in check. All three Republicans voted against the budget, noting that it failed to address the major budget drivers or plan for likely future reductions in state aid.
The adopted budget represents an increase of $9,186,438 over the FY2018 budget net of the $7.1 million contingency fund that had been established last year due to the large degree of uncertainty surrounding state aid at the time the town adopted its budget. On a percentage basis, the spending increase is 3.3 percent over FY2018. In comparison to the adopted (non-restated) budget for FY2018, the increase is 0.7 percent.
“This is a responsible and fair budget,” Mayor Shari Cantor said. “It is lean, that preserves the town’s ability to provide current services efficiently and effectively, meet our current obligations, and protect and strengthen our fund balance, and retains the important ability for us to manage our way through very unpredictable times.”
With the budget passed Tuesday night, the average West Hartford homeowner with two vehicles will see taxes increase by $153, or 1.6 percent for FY2019. In West Hartford, the “average” homeowner has a home assessed at $224,000, and two vehicles assessed at $9,000 each.
After the town manager’s budget was first proposed on March 12, Council members met in committee to review all aspects of the budget and held extensive discussions with town staff. What they approved Tuesday night is a total spending plan of $287,782,611, reduced by $536,725 from the $288,319,336 spending plan Hart originally proposed.
Included in those cuts is a $200,000 reduction to the school budget. The Town Council cannot make specific line item reductions to education funding – those must be approved by the Board of Education – but can cut the overall budget.
Other cuts came through the elimination of funding for two vacant grounds maintainer positions, for a savings of $120,000. Temporary payroll in facilities services has been reduced by $30,000. Other cuts included a reduction in contribution to the risk management fund of $100,000, a reduction in the utility services fund contribution of $50,000 due to estimated gas prices, a reduction of $50,000 in the contingency fund for wage settlements, and use of surplus to further reduce the utility services fund by $50,000.
In addition to the cuts, revenue estimates have been increased in several categories, several of which were discussed by the Town Council’s Budget and Finance Committee last week. The net effect was an adjustment of $1.6 million. Revenue estimates were amended based on updated results, and a decision not to add an extra $293,000 to increase the unreserved General Fund balance to 9.1 percent. In response to a recommendation from credit agency Moody’s, the town had already taken significant steps to shore up its General Fund balance when in December 2017, the Town Council approved the transfer of $3.2 million of surplus from FY2017 into the General Fund, increasing the ratio from 8.1 to 9 percent.
The budget adopted on Tuesday night also included an amendment of Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) funds that will be received from the state.
Cantor said prior to Tuesday’s meeting that she had been in constant discussion with the town manager after both Democratic and Republican state leadership late last week committed to funding ECS at a level equal to the FY2019 adopted budget of $21.1 million, rather than the $18.6 million that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed in February.
After discussion with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, and the town’s legislative delegation, Cantor and Hart were comfortable amending the ECS funding, and the budget adopted Tuesday night used an estimate of $20,386,600, an increase of $1,779,091 above what was originally proposed in March. The amended figure allowed for the reduction in the uniform mill rate to 41.00.
“Both parties understand that funding ECS affects the property tax directly,” Cantor said Tuesday morning prior to the vote, and using the best estimate of what ECS funding will actually be is important. “I don’t want to overtax our residents.”
Prior to the roll call vote, each Town Council member voiced their opinions on the budget.
Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan said the budget decision is the most important one the Council makes because it’s about residents’ money, and said that she was voting in favor of the budget with “unwavering pride,” thanking town staff for their work and Cantor for her leadership. “I will be wholeheartedly supporting this budget because it is a smart, prudent budget,” she said, one with a reduced mill rate and an eye toward the future.
Kerrigan said that you get what you pay for, and West Hartford has been nationally-recognized as the no. 1 place to live in the state. “Our single biggest investment is in education,” she said, and we are rich in culture, but adding that “pride doesn’t pay the bills, money does.”
Minority leader Chris Barnes said he was disappointed that the budget didn’t take into consideration the lessons learned last year. “When we look at the proposed budget the first thing that struck me was that it didn’t take into consideration the state budget issues,” Barnes said, which undoubtedly will have consequences in West Hartford.
“The issues that still drive our budget – employee cost, unfunded liabilities, and the state fiscal crisis –continue to put us at risk,” Barnes added.
Barnes said that community members have called continued increases “unsustainable,” but when he asked to see what a budget with zero increases he was told that it would “create significant alterations to services and programs in town” and he did not receive the information.
Democratic counselor Liam Sweeney, who was first elected last fall, said that the budget reflects the priorities of the community, and those he heard when he was campaigning: taxes, schools, and public safety. “This budget lowers the mill rate on real and personal property … that is something that most communities would like and is something that we are listening to our constituents about.”
Republican counselor Mary Fay, who is serving her first term, said that while it is “clear and evident that we rolled up our sleeves and tried to dig in as best as possible … I think we really missed an opportunity with this budget.” She said the long-term liabilities are “unsustainable.”
“We’ve got to really got to take a step back and look at things and make this government as efficient as we can, right-size it and do the things we can to make it more efficient,” Fay said, challenging the budget with a line-by-line review. “At some point we’re not going to be in a position to lure these businesses to us, or be able to keep seniors in our homes, and able to attract young families.”
“I’m really proud of West Hartford for creating the conditions that allow us to have a budget that represent a reduction in the mill rate,” said Democratic counselor Ben Wenograd. “Yes, we are cutting the mill rate for our real estate and property.
“This budget reflects our town values – a progressive community with a real eye on the bottom line,” Wenograd said. The Town Council considered drastic program and service cuts last year “and no one said we should do it … This is a good budget because this is a great town.”
“I come to tonight’s vote a little bit frustrated … not about whether this budget is good for today but if it’s good for tomorrow, whether it makes West Hartford’s tomorrow better for its residents and next generation. To me it does not and I will not support it,” Republican counselor Chris Williams said. The budget and its trends “exacerbate the town’s un-affordability,” he said.
“When looking at the town budget my first consideration is what made my wife and I move back to West Hartford to raise our family,” said Democratic councilor Dallas Dodge. What attracts families, and makes businesses want to invest include the “award-winning, top-rated schools,” as well as the beautiful town parks, the libraries, parks, the diverse community, and the vibrant town center.
“At the same time I agree with everybody that affordability is obviously a concern,” Dodge said, and he praised the budget for a “cut in the mill rate while maintaining the exceptional level of town services that our diverse population expects,” adding that work does need continue to address fixed costs, unfunded liabilities that have been unfunded for years, lack of revenue diversity, and the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
“Budgets reflect a community’s priorities and this budget reflects that,” Democrat Leon Davidoff said. He said Hart delivered what he had been asked to do, and now the mill rate of 41.00 is a reduction from what it was last year.
Davidoff said that this is only the second time since the early 1990s, when he first became involved in municipal government, that he was voting on a budget that decreased the mill rate. “Our residents asked us to hold the line on the mil rate and we’ve done that … That’s something that this body ought to be quite proud of,” adding that he thought it’s quite an accomplishment and should have had the support of all members.
There needs to be longterm strategic planning for fiscal stability, which all Council members agree, because certain things are unsustainable and may become unaffordable, Davidoff said. Finding means of revenue diversification is important, he said, and “we need to look for those, lobby for those, and have the ability to get those,” noting food and entertainment tax as a possibility. Regionalization of certain services like a firing range and animal pound is also a possibility for future cost saving.
At the same time, Davidoff noted, pension, MDC, healthcare, and contractually-agreed wages need to be dealt with, but on a realistic basis. “I cannot unilaterally change a bargaining agreement,” he said. Healthcare and pension plans for new employees have been restructured and the town has not taken its “eye off the ball.”
West Hartford continues to have grand list growth because it’s the place that developers and real estate owners want to be, Davidoff said, mentioning The Corbin Collection in the repurposed Sears and Sears Automotive Center where businesses are just opening. “People just don’t make random investments in our community without wondering whether or not they’re going to make a return on their investments.”
Work needs to be done, Davidoff said, “But let me be perfectly clear, West Hartford’s brightest days still lie ahead and I think that we ought to be positive, to be ambassadors,” he said praising Mayor Cantor as the “brightest leader at our helm” who takes the time to do it right.
West Hartford has received a lot of accolades, Cantor said, including several in the past year, but none of that would happen if the town let its foundation crumble. There is appreciation for the top-rated schools and the professional employees.
“I am more than pleased that we were able to cut the real estate mill rate,” said Cantor, something that had not happened during a non-revaluation year since she’s been here. “This took a lot of work and it’s not one time it’s because we budgeted responsibly last year” and is not making up for holes.
“My top priority as your mayor is for West Hartford to be competitive and affordable while continuing to provide exceptional services … for businesses to invest in the community and thrive and grow here.” While West Hartford remains one of most desirable town in the state and country, it’s important to note that there are pressures and the work doesn’t end with the passage of the budget, but rather the next level of strategic planning will begin.
There are budget drivers that need to be addressed in the long term, Cantor said, including MDC, funding pensions that have been unfunded for years, healthcare for retirees, and contingency on contracts.
School funding is 57 percent of the budget, and includes new mandates, increased need for security, and transportation challenges for an extremely diverse population. “We are unique and we are successful,” she said, with per pupil spending at 117 out of 169 towns.
Although revaluation last year created large shifts, in comparing mill rates between towns, on an equalized basis (calculated by dividing the adjusted tax levy by the equalized net grand list), West Hartford was one of the few communities in the area that saw a decrease in the equalized mill rate as compared to the previous year – and it was a decrease of 44 percent due to grand list growth, Cantor said.
The town is continuing to attract businesses, investors, talented people. “We are constantly reinventing ourselves,” Cantor said, with initiatives like paramedic services, new Cornerstone and Rockledge restaurant operators, and additional recycling opportunities, forward-thinking zoning changes.
At the same time, Cantor said, “We know that we have serious challenges and this is our reality … We need to work on strategic planning and that’s what we are doing.” The town’s plan of conservation and development will guide development for the next 10 years, and leaders will continue to work with legislators on revenue diversification, she said.
Expense strategies include pursuing a change to the MDC’s ad valorem structure, conducting new efficiency and effectiveness studies that will begin with the fire department, combining any possible school and town functions, and working with labor to develop sustainable, competitive, and fair agreements, sustainable projects, and waste management, said Cantor. “And we need to analyze the financing options for our very large liabilities that we can’t tax our way out of.”
The changes will take time, but are essential to the quality of life and financial stability.
“West Hartford is a diverse, vibrant, safe, and welcoming community. We have been through some very challenging times before … together we will navigate our way through these challenging times,” Cantor said.
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