Most residents who attended Tuesday afternoon's public hearing on the Town's 2012-2013 budget asked the Town Council to be creative in finding ways to cut costs.
On March 14, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle gave the Town Council an for 2012-2013, a budget which represents an increase of 5.1 percent. All budget documents can be reviewed on the Town's website.
Resident Dan Bender told the Council that West Hartford is "the best-run town in America," but urged leaders to look closely at adjusting the benefits portion of its collective bargaining agreements.
Minou Roufail said she anticipated a tax increase this year, especially after all of the Town's storm-related expenses. "When I did the tax calculator, there was moaning and gnashing of teeth for sure ... but my son had a happy and productive childhood here, and I had to ask myself what that was worth," Roufail said.
"Given the priority of maintaining what we already have, I can't help but support [the budget]," she said.
One resident asked town leaders to "start with a blank piece of paper," – using zero-based budgeting rather than the traditional method of starting with the prior year's numbers.
Resident George Kennedy, who is president of the West Hartford Taxpayers Association, said that one of the problems is that, "The 'group for [the budget]' doesn't end up paying the majority of the taxes."
"We just can't handle these increases any longer. I think we need to look at this budget carefully and cut it back – go into the union contracts," Kennedy said.
Kennedy later said he did not yet know whether or not the Taxpayers Association would push for a referendum on the budget. "It depends on how much they can whittle it down." Kennedy said he wants Council members to get the message: "Don't buy what you can't afford. They're buying an educational system that's not working."
Van Winkle said a major problem with this year's budget is revaluation, which affects every homeowner differently. "There is no average taxpayer," he said.
Although Van Winkle's budget proposal shows a reduced mill rate, from 39.44 to 35.92, that does not necessarily translate into reduced taxes. It all depends on how revaluation affects a particular property. Residents can estimate their 2012-2013 taxes, based on the proposed budget, using the tax calculator tool on the Town's website.
West Hartford had its last revaluation in 2006, but at the time the Town Council decided to phase it in over a five-year period. That phase-in was stopped completely after two years. Property values used for tax assessment are now way out of line with market values, and Van Winkle thinks that a revaluation phase-in is unlikely this year because values are so "out of sync."
"We're all putting our heads together. We need to make some hard decisions," said Minority Leader Denise Hall when asked what may be able to be cut from the proposed budget.
"Maybe we need to close a fire house," Hall said.
"Or maybe two," said Mayor Scott Slifka, who said there need to be some significant changes to our fundamentals.
"We can't implement them all in one year, but we need to look at the businesses we may want to get out of," Slifka said. Some of those businesses include the town pools, golf courses, and the skating rink.
The Town Council will hold another public hearing at 6 p.m. on April 9. The budget will be adopted at the April 24 Town Council meeting.