West Hartford's longest-serving mayor hopes to extend his longevity even further. Mayor Scott Slifka has announced that he plans to seek reelection this fall.
Slifka made that announcement at the conclusion of his annual "State of the Town" address Thursday during a sold-out Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the University of Hartford. The event was sponsored by TD Bank.
"There is a lot more transformative work that needs to be done in this town and I want to be part of this change ... so I'm running again," Slifka said. He said it was something he thought a lot about, and he also hopes his colleagues will seek reelection.
Slifka's speech focused on the evolution of West Hartford in the years since he has been part of the Town Council. He has been mayor since 2004, but first joined the Council in 2001.
Thinking back to 2001, he said, West Hartford had "never declared a state of emergency," was not on any "top 10" list, Elmwood had a 50 percent vacancy rate, there was no talk of Pepe's or Five Guys moving to town, there were no minority or openly-gay elected officials, there was minimal investment in Bishops Corner, the same town manager had been in his job for decades, and there was "no Newtown."
Slifka highlighted the many changes in the town since then – including three town managers since 2005, new police and fire chiefs, and a new director of public works.
"We've declared two states of emergency," said Slifka. He said "the really great consolidation with the Board of Education of all of our common functions," was extremely unique, and helped increase efficiency and decrease the number of town employees.
Blue Back Square is a major change. "Almost from the day it opened we felt like it had always been there," Slifka said.
West Hartford's accomplishments, Slifka said, are the product of a "community willing to take a strong stance." And, he said, they were accomplished against some pretty tough odds which he realizes are not going to be changing any time soon.
Slifka said West Hartford needs to continue as if we are on our own. "We in this room are going to do it," he told the civic and business leaders. He quoted the borrowed phrase, "You can't always wait for the sun to come out; sometimes you have to learn to work in the rain."
"The new normal is 'Seattle,'" he said. "It's going to be a drizzle for a while and we're just going to have to accept that and work through it."
Increased frequency of severe storms, extreme underfunding of West Hartford's Educational Cost Sharing by the state, and an "18th century" government structure financed completely through property taxes are some of the things that have to be accepted as "normal."
What West Hartford needs to do going forward, Slifka said, is focus and build on the town's pillars - its "established identity." Those pillars are schools, safety, and a community based on neighborhoods, he said. And, although the town has always been a lifestyle destination, it's now also a destination for visitors.
In the future, especially over the next year, Slifka said, the town needs to continue to take advantage of being that destination, with proximity to Hartford and the soon-to-be-built Jackson Labs complex in Farmington, and "adopt policies that are catalysts for people who want that."
Major development opportunities – the hotel that will soon come before Town Planning and Zoning, and the UConn Greater Hartford campus, Sisters of St. Joseph, and the former Sisters of Mercy properties, need to be taken advantage of.
Transit will also play a major role in West Hartford's future. "We have to accept that [the busway] will be here for better or for worse," Slifka said, and take the opportunity to make sure it works while understanding that we still need railway service to Boston and New York.
The town will face another major decision for the future: determining whether or not to go forward with renovating or rebuilding Charter Oak International Academy. Slifka said it needs to be carefully considered. "How might something like that impact the neighborhood?" he asked.
And although Slifka said because changes put in place are finally having an impact and 2013 "could be a good budget year," the challenges are not new.
We need to fix things with the fire department contract to make it more affordable for the community, said Slifka. School safety and West Hartford's underfunded pension plan are other major challenges to be addressed, he said.