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West Hartford Town Council Receives Amended Budget Proposal with Mill Rate Reduction

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Town Manager Matt Hart presented revisions to his original proposal Monday night, and the Board of Education is also considering a revised budget.

By Ronni Newton

The FY2021 budget that the West Hartford Town Council will vote to adopt next month already reflects a significant change from the document presented by Town Manager Matt Hart in March – with a new version offering a reduction in the mill rate and a savings to taxpayers, rather than the roughly 3.6% increase initially proposed.

Following amendments presented by Hart Monday night at a virtual Town Council meeting, the town’s General Fund budget now totals $299,871,758, and the proposed mill rate is 41.74 mills – a reduction of .06 mills (0.14%) from the current rate of 41.8 mills.

The revised spending plan is an increase of 1.14% over the FY2020 budget of $296,493,566.

“On March 10 we presented what I viewed at that point of time as a very responsible budget and capital plan for that point in time,” Hart told the Council Monday night, noting that since the rapid and profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community, six weeks “seems like years ago.”

Since then, Hart said he has initiated a spending and hiring freeze and has laid off 130 part-time employees, some of whom have been with the town for many years.

Hart said Mayor Shari Cantor and the Council asked him to submit a budget that would eliminate a property tax increase, and working closely with Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore, who has been a “great partner,” the revised budget results in a slight reduction to taxpayers.

While the Town Council has the authority to approve the overall budget allocation for the Board of Education, it cannot make line item changes and had plugged in a reduction of $4.6 million. The Board met Tuesday night, and Moore presented a budget with the requested $4.6 million reduction.

There are some slight reductions in services in the town budget, Hart said, and the budget is being approached “as a two to three year recovery period as we seek to restore services as the economy improves.”

There are many unknowns, said Hart, and costs “that are impossible to quantify at this time” – as currently schools, Town Hall, and many businesses remain closed at least through May 20.

Director of Finance Peter Privitera told We-Ha.com in a phone conversation Tuesday that the revised budget includes assumptions that the town will lose some money in interest due to deferred taxes and lower interest rates, and the total adjustment to the budget of roughly $9.9 million also includes a transfer from the Capital Fund and the use of $1.5 million in surplus.

Based on the amended budget, for the average homeowner, with a home assessed at roughly $227,000 and two vehicles assessed at $9,300 each, taxes will decrease by $14.73 for FY2021, which begins July 1.

“We tried to keep as many programs as possible in place,” Privitera said.

Some of the major reductions in expenses (see PDF with compete budget amendments below) result from hiring lags, reductions in overtime, and moving two police officers from the General Fund back to the Parking Fund. According to Privitera, the balance in the Parking Fund is sufficient to absorb the costs associated with the two officers.

A part-time position that was to have been added to Community Development has been eliminated, and temporary payroll has been reduced for cleaning and maintenance of facilities, Privitera said.

The utilities fund balance will also be used to offset expenses.

Roughly $300,000 is being cut from the libraries, estimating a reduction of 20-25% in programming services.

Substantial cost savings are estimated in Leisure Services, resulting from keeping the outdoor pools closed this summer as well as reductions in programming at both senior centers and the Elmwood Community Center.

While the charges to use the pools generate $134,000 in revenue, the expenses are $341,347, Privitera said.

“That’s not definite,” Hart told We-Ha.com on Tuesday. He said the final decision about summer programs and the pools will not be made until later.

“We’re not recommending closing the pools in order to reduce expenditures in the budget,” Hart said. “Our thinking is it’s likely for public health reasons, so why budget for that expense.” The situation is dependent on the state and whether or not it is deemed safe to open the pools. If they do open, savings will be sought elsewhere in the budget, he said.

The amended budget also includes a $675,000 reduction of the wage settlement contingency fund based on receiving union concessions.

“We want to sit down and have a conversation with the unions … what we can do to collectively impact the reduction in the budget,” Privitera said.

Hart said that the assumptions are consistent with concessions received from collective bargaining units in 2008.

Additionally, significant budget savings will be made through reducing the proposed increase in pension contribution for town and school employees (other than teachers) – from roughly $1.1 million to $200,000 – through blending mortality tables over the next two years. Privitera said this plan was discussed with and agreed to by the town’s actuaries.

The claim reserve for uninsured losses is being reduced by $500,000, with the agreement of the town’s Risk Management Department, Privitera said.

“We looked at everything,” said Privitera.

The Town Council will be discussing the amended budgets through workshops, and also holding two public hearings. The hearings are scheduled for Monday, April 27, at 2 p.m., and Thursday, April 30, at 6 p.m. Residents and taxpayers will be able to submit written comments in advance or call in to the meeting, and instructions will be forthcoming and will be posted on the town website.

Included below as a PDF is a “Budget in Brief” document prepared by the town.

The Board of Education has already held one workshop on its budget, and held a second workshop Tuesday night to discuss the $4.6 million reduction proposed by Moore. The workshop directly followed a virtual public hearing, which did not have any participants from the community.

The revised school budget for FY2021 under discussion is now $170,073,528, an overall 0.75% increase over the FY2020 budget.

“When we first presented the budget it was a budget for a different world than we are in now,” Moore told the Board Tuesday. He said there are so many unknowns, and he doesn’t know if students will return to the brick and mortar schools by June or if there will be summer school, if there will be just a recession or a depression.

Moore’s Tuesday night presentation of budget changes is attached as a PDF below.

Based on permitted changes to the budget adoption process outlined by Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders, the Board of Education must adopt its budget by May 17, and the Town Council must adopt the overall budget by May 26 under the new schedule permitted by the state.

The town hopes to complete the process ahead of those deadlines, with the Board of Education scheduled to vote on its budget on April 28.

If the Council can complete its review of the amended budget by early May, Hart said the budget vote will be scheduled for May 12.

Also at Monday night’s meeting, the Town Council received the Plan of Conservation and Development from Town Plan and Zoning Commission Chair Kevin Ahern, who presented the POCD along with Town Planner Todd Dumais. The Council will vote on approval of the POCD at its next meeting. To view the POCD, click here: POCD_Adopted_Plan.pdf (42,174 KB)

In his Town Manager’s Report, Hart also noted that to assist the town’s Incident Command System, he has hired Intersect Public Solutions (IPS), which has “experience managing government communications in times of crisis.” Founding Partner Brian Durand, a former chief of staff to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, “will help ensure we are communicating with our residents, our businesses, our nonprofits and others in a clear and consistent manner, and also that we are thinking ahead beyond this immediate period – helping to ensure a phased and smooth transition back to normal operations, when possible.” 

IPS will operate under a 90-day contract, for which they will be paid $4,500 per month. Several Council members questioned the expense.

Fire Chief Greg Priest presented a report of Fire Department activities, noting that 140 of the 204 calls to which the department has responded in the past week were medical calls. Many involved people with COVID-19-related symptoms.

Priest expressed this thanks for the support of the community for supplying requested donations of PPE and other items, and said that while responders are stressed, they are keeping up. The ability to respond using three light-duty vehicles has been effective, Priest said.

To read the Town Manager’s most recent COVID-19 report, click here.

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