The West Hartford Town Council voted 6-3 Tuesday night to adopt a $237,669,945 budget for 2012-2013, an increase of 4.7 percent over last year's budget. The roll call vote was split along party lines, with Republicans Denise Hall, Steve Adler, and Burke Doar casting the dissenting votes.
The adopted budget was trimmed from Town Manager Ron Van Winkle's by a total of $1,006,254. "It's a whole lot of little cuts," Van Winkle said.
Specific line item changes range from a $450 reduction in overtime costs for the Corporation Counsel's office to a $400,000 savings realized by funding communications infrastructure changes through the Capital Improvement Plan rather than through the General Fund.
The on April 10, with a $125,000 reduction from the original proposal.
Under the Town's adopted 2012-2013 budget, the mill rate will be 35.75. Although that figure is a reduction from the current rate of 39.44, the impact on individual taxpayers depends on how revaluation affects their property.
Van Winkle reminded the Council that 58.4 percent of the Town's budget is school spending, and 80 percent of costs are for personnel. "That which we can control we do. Our operating costs are down this year," he said. Most of the existing union contracts were negotiated in 2006, and will expire on June 30, 2013. Planned changes to those agreements, Van Winkle said, should put the 2013-2014 budget in a more favorable light.
Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor pointed out that this year's budget actually has a $12,000 reduction in expenses.
"This is a particularly difficult year because of revaluation. There are no easy or good choices," Mayor Scott Slifka said. In 2006, the last time West Hartford had a revaluation, it was planned to be phased in over five years and was suspended after two years. Slifka said that the state has not passed legislation allowing for a phase-in this year, so the impact is potentially enormous for some homeowners.
"The hardest part is when we hear individual stories that are difficult. We're not empowered to help individuals, and we're left having to make a judgement for the town as a whole," Slifka said. He said it would be supremely difficult to reduce the budget enough to help those who are significantly impacted by the revaluation.
Democratic Council member Harry Captain agreed that the major factor in this year's budget process is revaluation, which cannot be controlled and affects each homeowner differently. "A lot of emails I’ve been getting have been talking about reducing the budget increase to 3 percent. That would be cutting out $3.8 million. These two budgets are very lean, very mean, and driven by the contract costs that are behind them. If we were to get down to 3 percent, there would be significant loss in town services," Captain said.
Minority leader Denise Hall said that the Council already does everything it can to streamline costs, but she's still concerned. "I believe the only way to address the unsustainable increases is to reduce the number of people employed by the town by either outsourcing certain functions, or by eliminating collective bargaining of public employee salary and benefits, and we have no control over the latter," she said.
Hall agreed that some things will take time to implement, but is afraid that the Town is no longer delivering its services at a reasonable price. "We could be getting very close to the tipping point with this budget," she said.
Democrat Clare Kindall said that the Town can't continue to rely just on property taxes to fund the budget for our schools. "I support this budget, but I am doing it with pain for the people," she said. "'Can I afford to live here?' is a really big question."
Republican Burke Doar expressed concern for the $41 million gap in Education Cost Sharing. "That gap in funding is 25 percent of the education budget ... This is a crisis ... Something is wrong here. This is a calamity of epic proportions,” Doar said.
Democrat Leon Davidoff supported the budget, but said, "We need to look at what functions we expect government to do."
"We're turning around a battleship," said Slifka, who expressed his frustration with the continuing need to pay for decisions made as far back as the Truman Administration. As an example he cited ongoing defined benefit pension payments for an 85-year-old man who retired when Slifka himself was only in first grade.
Slifka said that this is a very tough year, but believes that the Town is being responsible and providing a good foundation for next year, when he hopes to see an improved economy. He thinks we're getting to "the other side of the bridge," and the ability to renegotiate contracts next year will have a significant impact.
"Over the next one to three years you’re going to visibly see substantial changes to the way town does its business out of necessity, but it's going to be done in a responsible way. We hope that we will be seeing a growing Grand List, we’re starting to see a flattening of our long-term liabilities, we're hoping to see some changes in ECS funding – and there is a chance that it could get fundamentally better for us. But it's all based on our ability to properly fund the town this year."