Town Manager Ron Van Winkle gave the Town Council an overview of his $238,676,199 proposed budget for 2012-2013 on Tuesday night, prefacing his presentation with a statement about how challenging it has been to put a budget together in the current economy.
Although the 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.
The proposed budget represents a 5.1 percent increase over this year's budget, and breaks down to a 4.6 percent ($6,067,663) increase in the education budget; 5.9 percent ($4,741,034) increase in the town budget; and 5.9 percent ($838,322) increase in the capital financing budget.
Superintendent of Schools Karen List unveiled her — which comprises about 60 percent of the overall town budget — at the Board of Education meeting last week, and public hearings on the school budget will begin on Wednesday.
Pension and health expenses are key budget issues that both the town and schools are struggling with.
The Town's proposed spending increase of $4.7 million is "driven by some things that have been difficult for us," Van Winkle said. A major factor is the Pension Fund, which is increasing by $1,660,035.
Van Winkle highlighted other budget busters which include an increase in health costs of $1,218,100, and wages, which are dictated by existing contracts, up $1,219,869. Operating costs are only budgeted to increase by $84,000, with MDC and utility cost increases being offset by other cost reductions.
The fire fighter's union contract is up for renewal on July 1, and Van Winkle's budget anticipates a wage freeze. Other union contracts will not come up for negotiation until mid-2013, which will impact future budgets.
West Hartford receives the majority of its revenue, more than 88 percent, from property taxes. Intergovernmental revenue – mostly from the State of Connecticut – takes into account Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed budget, which includes more than $900,000 additional ECS funds. However, revenue from services, which consists mainly of building permits and conveyances, is budgeted to decrease, as is interest income.
The impact of this budget on individual taxpayers will depend on the results of the recent revaluation, which is a complicated situation since the 2006 revaluation was never fully implemented.
Although the current 39.44 mill rate is likely to decrease, and the proposed budget includes a mill rate of 35.92, Van Winkle cautions residents not to make immediate assumptions. He said a tax calculator will be available on the town's website by Wednesday morning, so residents can compare last year's taxes to this year's proposed taxes.
Van Winkle's budget assumes that the entire revaluation will be adopted all at once, but that will also be determined during upcoming budget deliberations.
"We have to adopt a new Grand List – it's required by State of Connecticut – but they allow us to phase in the revaluation over five years," he said.
Homeowners should double check the market value shown on their assessment notices, and be sure that it seems right. "If you think it's too high, contact the assessor's office right away. That's the important thing right now," Van Winkle said.
There will be two public hearings on the budget: March 27 at 2 p.m. and April 9, at 6 p.m., and the budget will be adopted at the April 24 Town Council meeting.
Over the next six weeks, committees will be working intensively on their own pieces of the budget. Although the final proposal is likely to decrease from what was proposed Tuesday, Van Winkle cautioned that there are not many options left.
"This is not an inexpensive town to live in, and we have to find that balance between taxes and quality. This is going to be another very challenging year to do that,” he said.
Minority Leader Denise Hall pointed out the challenge of controlling employee wage, pension, and health care benefits. "As long as we have collective bargaining of these contract items, we will never be able to do what we need to do to ensure that West Hartford remains attractive as a place to live and affordable for all of our residents," she said.
"It's all about policy choices," said Chris Johnson, Director of Financial Services.
For a complete copy of West Hartford's budget as well as the Town Manager's presentation, visit www.westhartford.org. The education budget is available at www.whps.org. Town Council members can also be contacted with any questions.