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West Hartford Republicans Cave;
Make Deal with Democrats to Raise Taxes;
Lack of Diligence Cited;
Taxpayers and Connors the Real Losers
By Tom Evers
June 25, 2004
It's amazing. It's simply amazing…
As you'll recall, last week by a 7 to 1 margin victory via town-wide referendum, West Hartford Taxpayers rejected the recent town budget proposing a tax increase of 7%, which would have propelled the town mil rate to 43 percent. On Tuesday, June 22, the Council nearly reaffirmed its decision to significantly raise taxes without doing the necessary diligence to cut spending. Let us tell you what, once again, the Hartford Courant, either intentionally or unintentionally, failed to inform its readers.
First and very atypical of West Hartford character, about 200 plus outraged citizens showed up at what was to be a simple town meeting - an overwhelming majority looking to express displeasure with the Council's efforts and their plans to raise taxes. The fact that so many people turned out to speak out against the budget literally "shocked the Council." But this didn't stop them from going ahead, by 9-0 unanimous ballot, to vote in the tax increase anyway.
Democrats running the Council rejected outright the notion of a town hearing on the budget. There are three simple reasons for this. The first is that the Council members understand that to the residents, the concept of a tax increase for this budget after back to back tax increases over the years with little effort to reduce spending is no longer a popular notion in town. The second reason is that the current lead members of the Council, namely Democrats Art Spada, Scott Slifka, Carolynn Thornberry, and Mayor Jonathan Harris are not interested in hearing from the public. Nor do they feel they need to justify or explain such steady increases - mainly because they can't justify them. The third and final reason is that by Monday, Republicans and Democrats had cut a quick, backroom deal, made with the thought of simply putting this budget debate behind them, and hoping that the public would simply swallow the increased spending, new tax rate, and be fooled into believing that using state grants as offsets would be seen as a better substitute to sitting around the table to do the real work required, and making tangible decisions to reduce an extravagant budget.
Contrary to any misconceptions provided by other media outlets, Democrats and Republicans barely lifted a finger to solve for the spending crisis. In fact, the reduction in spending in the new budget is about a 1/2-percentage point. Most of the dollars used to offset the increase come from grants provided by the State of Connecticut.
The actual cut in increased spending is about $100 thousand dollars on the town side. The school is giving up a mere $1,031,900.00, which on the surface seems like a lot, but not when the annual budget is a whopping $101 million dollars. The reduction is again less than one percent.
Here's the shocker (if it wasn't the lack of effort around reducing spending), West Hartford will continue to increase spending at a rate of 6.5%, which will bring the mil rate to 42.12 mils. At the end of the day, we will learn that the best that the West Hartford Town Council could do is reduce spending by ˝ percent? Who are they kidding?
The Council also proposes to increase fees on permits and services, including initiating a new $20 fee for bulk waste pick up. At the moment (and no surprise), the details of how this will implemented is unknown, but it seems like the days of leaving chairs and other such items for free trash pick up - as you are permitted in most towns -- may become a thing of the past. Whether taxpayers will be charged by item or pick up still remains a question. Other fees in town will increase, but a final list has not been composed.
There is a little more to say about the increase of the mil rate to 41.12. Contrary to popular belief, very few of Connecticut's 169 towns have such a staggering mil rate; West Hartford now joins only five other towns in the state with a mil rate above 40. They are: Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury, New Britain and Chaplain. This is hardly something that this Administration should be proud of.
So here we have it. After such a tremendous rejection by referendum the Council edges the original budget from $176.4 million to $175.3 million. They cut a sliver from the tax increase originally proposed at 7% to 6.1% (when they actually wanted a double digit tax increase). And strangely enough, if you've noticed the discrepancy - spending will rise 6.5% which is not even covered by the increase in taxes at a rate of 6.1% - this appears, from any reasonable perspective to be a huge problem for the future.
And where are the Republicans like Rob Bouvier and Kevin Connors? Right there making the deal, offering no counter solutions for the future, and failing to take a common sense stand against what they must know to be bad for West Hartford. Instead of standing for principle, Rob Bouvier called this a "fair compromise", and Kevin Connors claims that the school budget is "right where is should be." Really? How is this fair to taxpayers? Honestly Councilmen, do you really believe that this budget makes sense? This is the best that you could do? Are you saying that West Hartford residents should just take their medicine (castor oil) and like it?
It's also amazing to think that after putting forward such a miserable effort to solve for West Hartford's budget woes, that both Kevin Connors and Jonathan Harris would have the audacity to contemplate running for higher office. As of this writing, both are vying for the State Senate position soon to be abdicated by Kevin Sullivan, as he becomes Lt. Governor. If neither man can take the time to do the necessary diligence or show true leadership on behalf of constituents at the local level, what would make taxpayers believe that they will act any differently on the state level, with an even larger budget to deal with?
This whole episode is particularly bad for Connors. Had he been thinking, he may have realized that sacrificing principle for politics will probably cost him any chance at Sullivan's seat. In a highly Democratic district, few people will see the difference between Harris the tax-raiser, and Connors the tax-raiser. In most cases, voters tend to go with the real thing and not the substitute. Democrats will come out in force for Harris, as he acts as they expect, and Republicans will sit home seeing Connors as a Republican without principle, a mere clone of Harris, who didn't have the guff to fight for spending cuts on behalf of constituents. Boy Mr. Connors, you have certainly done yourself in.
I also questioned Phil Meister, President of the West Hartford Taxpayers Association about the potential for another referendum. Mr. Meister explained that his organization would be meeting over the next day or so to discuss the whether or not another referendum is warranted. While its true that a budget referendum may force the Council to reconvene, there is little to suggest that they have the competence to deal with the budget crisis.
At the heart of the matter lies the general inability to make deep cuts. As it stands and despite Democrats fearful warnings that budget reduction would come at the cost of reduction of police, fire and administrative job loses - it appears that there were in fact zero cuts in any of these areas. Only a supervisory position in public works, a salary of about $85,000 was actually removed. This position simply won't be filled. This is just about all the Council could come up with on this side of the house.
Republicans and Democrats were also able to muster a cut of $100,000 from the leaf-collection fund. This is nothing but a scratch to the surface. Yet another sign that the Council and Barry Feldman are unwilling to the do the work necessary to make real cuts, real consolidation and handle West Hartford budgetary with a pretense of really solving for the issues. At the moment, the Council's goal is to simply wear the public down into accepting tax increases as a way life in West Hartford.
It's also becoming more apparent that citizens are becoming less important to town officials, and satisfying town unions and teachers unions have become the top priority.
The long-term downside to this approach is disastrous. Today West Hartford is an Urban-Periphery. This means that we are not an Urban Center as Hartford is presently considered, but we have all the signs of moving in that direction. High taxes with mil rates above 40 will lend to impacts on the housing market - this isn't to suggest that housing market will dry up - but the market will led itself to slip, and property values will decline. The end result over time is a city with a dense population that contains either the incredibly well-to-do (those who don't care about how high taxes are) and those that fit into the poor, lower income class, who will rent, and seek to take advantage of and drain town services.
As the demand for services rises, a need for steadily increased revenue increases and the cycle of yearly tax increases - no matter how small in each budget year -- will compound over time. This will lead to an all but non-existent middle class, which is needed to sustain the community's survival. While West Hartford won't become Hartford overnight, it has the potential to easily become a New Britain.
As I said in my last article, Board of Education Chairman Jack Darcey clearly misses the boat. If there is to be a mass exodus out of West Hartford, it won't be because the school budget is cut by 1%, but it will be because a mil rate of 42.12 and a tax increase of 6.1% will make the town less affordable for residents. It's hard to imagine why Mr. Darcey doesn't see that vision. Is that because he's locked into servitude for the teacher's union? Just wondering?
Most residents agree (particularly those who do not have children) that money paid to fill the coffers of city bureaucrats and teachers; run by an incompetent group of Council members could be better spent elsewhere. The current economy may be improving, but that doesn't mean that West Hartford residents are willing to arbitrarily part with their hard earned cash for no return.
Time will tell whether or not the Council will come to its senses. The likely-hood that past behavior is predicative of future behavior tends to hold true, so I have low expectations of a miracle. And with Republicans now attached as co-authors of a huge tax increase, there will nothing for residents to differentiate between either Party, hurting the Republicans chances of regaining the Council. That is unless, new candidates who stand for principle run on the Republican ticket.
Stay tuned here to find out whether or not the West Hartford Taxpayers Association is willing to stomach another fight. Let's hope so. Let's hope that someone is willing to stand up to this charade of leadership.
And remember folks; re-evaluation is right around the corner, we only received a three-year reprieve. What will homeowners be paying in 2007? If you're scared, you probably should be. So get out there and be heard.
Until next time…..
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