In a vote split 6-3 along party lines, the West Hartford Town Council adopted a $296.5 million budget Tuesday night, an increase in spending of 2.92 percent.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Town Council was sharply divided in its vote Tuesday night on the town’s FY2020 budget, with the $296,493,566 spending plan passing 6-3 along party lines.
The adopted budget plan was reduced by $1,518,726 from the budget initially proposed by Town Manager Matt Hart in March.
Overall spending will increase by $8,411,984, or 2.92 percent – offset in part by growth in the grand list of 0.43 percent, which will generate approximately $1,111,358 in additional revenue – for a net impact on taxpayers of $5,408,670, or 2.14 percent.
The uniform mill rate for real and personal property and automobiles will increase from 41.00 mills to 41.80 mills. The average homeowner with two vehicles will see taxes increase by $197, or 1.95 percent, (from $10,071 to $10,268) for FY2020. In West Hartford, the “average” homeowner, according to the 2018 Grand List, has a home assessed at $226,360, and two vehicles assessed at $9,646 each.
All Council members thanked the town manager and town staff for their work on this year’s budget, but while the Democrats praised the budget for maintaining the town’s high level of services and excellent schools and preserving the top bond rating, the Republicans said that continued tax increases are unsustainable.
“West Hartford is a ‘best in class’ town,” Cantor said, and one that has always been expensive compared to some other other communities. The town consistently receives top ratings nationally, receives accolades for its schools – which are 57 percent of the town’s budget – for being one of the best places to live in the country, one of the coolest suburbs, for having the highest educated population, for maintaining its AAA bond rating, for safety, for the quality of life. The expectations are high, she said.
“You don’t become, and you surely don’t stay a ‘best in class’ town with short cuts,” Cantor said. You do it by taking the long view with strategic management and leadership that is “constant, consistent, intentional, and disciplined.”
After the town’s budget was proposed, Council members met in committees to review all aspects of the budget, discussions that led to $1,518,726 being trimmed from what Hart originally proposed.
Reductions include a $296,216 cut made by the Board of Education when it adopted its budget on April 2. Most of that cut was to an amount set aside for payment into the Teachers’ Retirement System. Gov. Ned Lamont allocated $524,216 as West Hartford’s share in his proposed state budget, but amid uncertainty about what ultimately may be included, the Board opted to budget for roughly half of that.
Many of the other budget modifications, which were discussed at a meeting last week of the Council’s Finance and Budget Committee, came from delaying hiring for vacant positions, refinancing debt, reducing expense estimates, and increasing the budgeted reimbursement rate for nurses that the town is statutorily required to provide to to private schools.
After lengthy discussion by the Finance and Budget Committee, the two new public safety positions included in the original budget proposal, a lieutenant in the fire department and an additional public safety dispatcher, were retained.
The one addition made to the budget made since the original proposal was $152,560 for implementing a biweekly yard waste collection program for residential properties.
Hart said that he believes the budget has met the Council’s goals, and the most recent updates mitigate the tax burden on residential taxpayers. While it does not impact the general fund budget, Hart also noted that funds will be allocated in the capital improvement program to expand the scope of the storm water study to include neighborhoods in the Fern Street and North Main Street areas that have experienced overflow problems.
The amended budget is a “responsible spending plan,” Hart said, and also maintains the town’s 9 percent undesignated fund balance, which is important to the rating agencies.
Republican Chris Williams said that the only word that can be used to describe the town’s budget growth is “unsustainable” and that while there have been discussions in the past about financial stability, about utilizing pension obligation funds, selling off town properties, closing libraries, he said that last year the car tax increased 28 percent [when the automobile mill rate cap was no longer required and the town reverted back to a uniform mill rate] and the “town’s annual tax increases are exponential and unsustainable.”
Williams said that the only way that will change is to change the make-up of the Council. He said he maintains his concern with the costs associated by adding the paramedic program, and said that while he is not picking on the fire department, it was the “wrong move at the wrong time” and something needs to give.
The Council consistently rubber stamps the school budget, Williams added. With enrollment on the decline, he said, “nobody has ever given me an explanation of why we have Bristow.”
Affordability and sustainability “are not priorities” of the majority party, Williams said.
Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan said that while she hates everything about taxes – preparing them, paying them – that doesn’t change the reality, and “what I do love is living in our community,” a place that is rich in diversity, green space, parks, theaters, bike lanes, and where “a family like mine, that looks like mine, with two women and two brown children can feel safe.”
Our taxes support “my town, our town, your town,” Kerrigan said, programs like Dial-a-Ride, like community pools, golf courses, the skating rink, reading programs at the library. She praised the police department for helping her family earlier this year, the way the chief handled an unspeakable tragedy last December, the fire chief for understanding how the traditional fire service role has changed, and the school superintendent for making a dollar go a long way.
The MDC’s escalating charges continue to drive budget increases in the town, but Council members have sat through multiple budget meetings looking line-by-line for expenses to cut, and if there was a way to do so without decreasing safety or services, it would have been found, said Kerrigan.
“I am supporting a budget that reflects what’s most important to the residents,” Kerrigan said.
Republican Mary Fay said that her home, which she bought 15 years ago, has only increased 6 percent in value while her taxes have gone up 80 percent. She said that Zillow shows that West Hartford is an “ice cold” market, and while she loves living here, she has concerns.
“Several of our towns here in Connecticut have been able to keep their taxes flat. We’ve asked for flat budgets and other towns have done it,” Fay said, citing New Britain, Vernon, New Haven, and Danbury, and noting that mill rates in many nearby towns are lower than the rate in West Hartford.
The budgeting process in West Hartford is flawed, Fay said, and the town should look at our revenue first and then determine what can be spent.
Democrat Ben Wenograd, however, called the town’s budget “responsible, fact-based, and forward looking.”
Wenograd said that the pension contributions are being made based on actuarially-determined recommendations, and not doing that would be poor fiscal management.
According to charts prepared by West Hartford CFO Peter Privietera, the “equalized mill rate which is also the effective tax rate” has increased by less than 1 percent since 2009, Wenograd noted. He said he independently verified that information, and also checked West Hartford’s rate growth against towns in DRG-B, which is used in statutory comparisons but does not include any other MDC member towns. That comparison “avoids cherry-picking to make an ideological point,” and the result shows that mill rates in the other towns all grew faster than in West Hartford, he said.
While it’s unfortunate that the town’s trial of weekly recycling didn’t increase recycling rates, Wenograd praised the addition of yard waste collection as an affordable way to positively impact the environment.
Minority Leader Chris Barnes said that this was his sixth and final budget night, and every year the vote is the same, 6-3 along party lines, and during that time the budget has increased from about $241 million to nearly $300 million, he said.
Barnes said he didn’t think the Council had enough information to fully evaluate the budget, and when he asked the town manager for what a zero increase tax budget would look like he got a one-page memo.
Barnes said that according to the memo, to achieve a zero increase all part-time positions would need to be eliminated, libraries would be closed or have greatly reduced services, summer youth activities and pool and park staff would be eliminated, a senior center would be closed, and special needs programming would be eliminated. The option of reducing contribution to the Pension Fund or OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefit) Fund would jeopardize the town’s credit rating. Since the school budget is approximately 60 percent of the overall budget, according to the memo to achieve the zero tax increase there would be a lay-off of 39 teachers.
“There were no real specifics related to these cuts,” Barnes said. Last year, the town manager had asked all department managers to advise how they would cut 5 percent from their budget, documents which he said this year “would be of critical importance to us.” He said he believed it could be done, and that the Board of Education should be shown how it can be done.
Hart, when asked after the meeting about a zero tax increase, told We-Ha.com that staff would need direction and “policy priorities” from the Council to provide more specific options.
Democrat Dallas Dodge said that the mill rate will increase less than 2 percent, he thinks the budget “is a responsible spending plan.” He believes “fundamentally people are really happy with the quality of service” in West Hartford, and it remains an attractive town in which to live.
About 80 percent of the budget is fixed costs, Dodge said, and one cost increasing at an irresponsible rate is the MDC ad valorem charge. West Hartford is uniquely affected and ends up subsidizing other towns, and “that’s a budget we have zero control over,” and something that must be changed for West Hartford to remain competitive.
“I think there are some things that we definitely need to address over the long run,” Democratic Councilor Liam Sweeney said, adding that he wold continue to work to find those items.
Praising the professionalism of the town’s police and fire departments and thanking them for their service, Sweeney said, “This has been a year that has absolutely demonstrated that both our fire and police are some of the best units in the state, if not in the country.”
Democrat Leon Davidoff said this was his 12th West Hartford budget, and said that he believes that the Council received accurate and timely data, and had questions answered on a timely basis.
“This budget meets all of our obligations,” meeting contractual obligations, making progress on funding pension obligations, and maintaining a fund balance to retain the AAA rating. As others mentioned, Davidoff noted that the MDC ad valorem tax has to end.
Economic growth, increasing the grand list, needs to be the focus going forward, Davidoff said – grand list growth as well as revenue diversification.
“I’m very proud of the hires that Manager Hart made with Chief Riddick and Chief Priest,” Davidoff said of the two chiefs who were hired in the past year.
He said he disagreed with Williams, and believes that eliminating the paramedic service would be a mistake and leave a $1 million hole in the budget, because it brings in revenue and eliminates the charge to AMR.
Cantor knows the budget better than anyone, Davidoff said, and while they don’t agree on everything, “let me tell you something, no one has worked harder on this budget for the past 12 years than Mayor Shari Cantor.” This year’s budget, he said, is the “best budget that we can produce and meets the needs of our community.”
West Hartford is a great community, said Davidoff, “the vibe of the region,” consistently receiving accolades. “It’s not an accident. People make it a reality.”
The school system addresses the needs of a diverse group of students, and a flat budget “would negatively impact those least able to provide those services on their own in the private sector,” he said.
Not everyone in town can go to their beach or lake house, or the country club to swim if the town pools aren’t open. Seniors need the senior centers not just for social reasons, but sometimes for heating and cooling centers, and people go to the library because they don’t have internet service at home.
“I get what people are saying, they want a zero, it’s not realistic,” said Davidoff. “I work in realistic.”
West Hartford is continuing to pay and being impacted by for decisions that were made 20 years ago, Cantor said, when the town went 11 years without making a contribution to fund pension liabilities. Seventy percent of the town’s pension contribution is past service costs, but the trajectory is changing and will eventually go down.
West Hartford’s public schools, now ranked 107th out of 169 in per pupil spending, have a diverse population that mirrors the U.S. at large, yet both high schools are in the top 500 nationally, Cantor said, and there are more AP scholars in West Hartford alone than in eight states. Only 28 states as a whole had more AP Capstone Scholars last year than West Hartford, while we remain in the bottom third of per pupil spending.
The MDC ad valorem tax is a large budget driver, and town leaders are working to change that system and go to a user fee. “If that happens your taxes will go down,” Cantor said. Right now the MDC charge is nearly 2 mills.
Cantor said that it’s important to look at where West Hartford stands in terms of the equalized mill rate, or “effective tax rate,” which equalizes the town’s grand lists that may be in different phases of a revaluation cycle. Even with the MDC increases which have sometimes been in double digits, West Hartford’s equalized mill rate has increased 3.2 percent since 2009, less than towns like Avon, Simsbury, Farmington, Rocky Hill, Wethersfield, Glastonbury, and others.
Cantor noted many of the things that have been done over the past decade to keep the town “competitive sustainable,” like combining town and education functions, incorporating the paramedic program into the fire department which generates revenue and improves service, energy conservation efforts, and modification to town contracts.
In this year’s budget, weekly recycling will be discontinued and return to a biweekly basis, but some of those cost savings will be used to add biweekly yard waste pickup because”we think that will be a better benefit to the cost, and also to our taxpayers.” Town staff has done a good job in securing grant opportunities, she said.
Hart cut $1.9 million from the budgets his departments initially requested, revenue estimates were adjusted by $1.3 million, and the budget voted on Tuesday night was cut by an additional $1.5 million, Cantor said. “I do believe that this budget … is a responsible, good budget, and if anybody thinks any of us wants to raise taxes, we don’t.”
“Here we are,” she said, citing many of the prestigious accolades the town has received. “Adequacy is never enough,” Cantor said, quoting something one of the school principals said several years ago.
“This is not by chance, this is a long record, you can’t take one budget in isolation. … This is the balance we feel we need to walk this year. We’re safe, award-winning, highly-recognized, vibrant, desirable, we make investments in our future, we plan for our future, we have fiscal honesty and responsibility.”
Like what you see here? Click here to subscribe to We-Ha’s newsletter so you’ll always be in the know about what’s happening in West Hartford!