Mayor Scott Slifka told a packed room of business and civic leaders that although the Town is strong today, he wants to be sure West Hartford's best days will be in the future. Construction of a hotel in town is just one aspect of the mayor's proposed six-point plan to achieve that goal during the next decade.
It was Slifka's eighth appearance at the podium for the annual "State of the Town" address, which this year was sponsored by and hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce at the . In May, Slifka will earn the distinction of being the longest-serving mayor of West Hartford, a record which is currently held by Godfrey Day (1935-1943).
Slifka took the opportunity to once again commend the efforts of West Hartford's town, education, and business leaders for their efforts during October's freak snowstorm and resulting power outage. "Maybe we should just do this by telephone recording," he joked about giving an in-person address.
"If I were to write a book about [the storm]," he said, "I would entitle it: 'The Week I Canceled Halloween Twice.'"
Slifka prefaced his address by saying it would not sound like a reelection speech or a commercial. "The state of the Town is strong, but there are vital issues that must be addressed in the next five to ten years or it won't be strong in the long term."
The mayor believes the Town is running well, not in crisis mode, but said, "It's the perfect time for truth-telling," and outlined his process and plan to "build our tomorrows on the foundation that we have now."
In many ways West Hartford is in a good place, Slifka said, with the latest census indicating a population increase and a report by CB Richard Ellis-New England noting that the commercial vacancy rate in West Hartford is only 9 percent, as compared to nearly 22 percent for the Greater Hartford region.
New businesses have opened all over Town, and Slifka said 2012 will be "the year of construction."
"It's good, but it will be annoying," he said, joking that "everything south of Raymond Road" is or will soon be under construction. Projects include MDC work, the busway, Flatbush Ave. bridge, Farmington Ave. reconstruction, and the state road project on New Britain Ave.
However, noting that the news is not all good, Slifka cautioned that right now we are still adjusting to the "new normal ... and we're not sure what normal is yet." He told the crowd, "This is going to be another difficult budget year."
The economic environment is difficult, Slifka said. There is also some fear that use of the fund balance to pay storm clean-up expenses not reimbursed by FEMA (an extreme emergency, which is exactly what the fund balance is intended to cover) will adversely affect West Hartford's financial rating. In any case, Slifka said, the balance will have to be built back up.
Other strains on the budget include loss of federal funding (especially Community Development Block Grants) as well as the continued underfunding of Education Cost Sharing (ECS). "The numbers are staggering," Slifka said, stating that with a funding level of only 28 percent, "West Hartford is arguably the most underfunded community in the state." In the current fiscal year alone, that translates to a $41 million shortfall.
"We're going to be pressing on that more this year than ever," Slifka said, and he hopes that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's attention to this issue will positively impact West Hartford.
Other budget stressors include pension plan commitments, health care costs, and revaluation. The good news, Slifka said, is that no matter which contractor is selected, the Town will realize some savings from the new waste disposal contract under consideration.
There are "no bumper sticker solutions; it's not easy," Slifka said. The Town has learned some valuable lessons, including that we are largely on our own and handle it remarkably well, and that we must define and drive our own opportunities. His stated goal is for "the state of the Town in 2020 to be stronger than it is today."
"We need to be bold," Slifka said. Although many of his colleagues are touting the virtues of regionalism, Slifka disagrees. "I'm going to tell you that it's going to solve almost nothing."
"We need to go through a fundamental self-evaluation of what we can and should provide as a goverment," and also look at ways we can be innovative. "I want to put us on a course to 2020," he said.
"The secret to West Hartford is that we're unique; that we're a lifestyle." His conclusion is that our number one mission is to protect the schools and the neighborhoods. "We need to hit the reset button" and look at what we would provide as a government if we were starting from scratch.
Commitment to bringing a hotel to Town, to continue to build on West Hartford's "mini downtown," is part of Slifka's six-point plan. Community Services Director Rob Rowlson thinks the plot of land across from the on Raymond Road is the ideal spot for a hotel. "We need to do it, we need to get serious about it," Slifka said.
Slifka's plan also includes "right sizing" the , examining the sale of public assets such as the and pools, pursuit of fair and realistic contracts, continuing to engage in communication with the , and re-examination of the Town's charter.
Right now we need quality thinkers, he said, and stressed the need for bipartisanship. "Let's open our eyes and start looking for unity again," Slifka said.
"We have to begin now. We need to make sure that West Hartford's best days are not today, but they're ahead of us."