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Guest Post: WHTA

Posted by whforums on September 26, 2008

Ten days ago, I invited both the WHTA and West Hartford FIRST to compose a guest post for this blog that would answer the following question: Why should we vote Yes/No on October 7th? My hope was to hold the two arguments against one another so we could have a reasonable discussion about the merits of both. The post from the folks at West Hartford FIRST can be found here. What follows is the response from West Hartford Taxpayers Association. It arrived to me as a press release dated Wednesday, September 24th.

We wish to make something very clear to all West Hartford residents: The West Hartford Taxpayers Association is not advocating for the closure of any fire station, or the increase of class sizes, or the elimination of leaf collection. Those decisions are wholly the responsibility of the Town Council and Board of Education. How they decide to divide up budget dollars has nothing to do with the West Hartford Taxpayers Association. Our position regarding the budget is, and always has been, to advocate for responsible spending, transparent government and to insure that town residents are being taxed fairly and in line with cost of living increases and inflation. We believe that Town government can be operated efficiently to provide needed services at a fair cost to the Citizens of West Hartford. We are being unjustly characterized as being anti-education, and now anti-public safety for political purposes to scare the public into voting “YES” on October 7. It is very disturbing that town leaders and union representatives are using every means possible to create an emotional response to how people vote in this next referendum.

Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to close a fire house just to save a mere $25,000. This is a terrible disservice to our town and we believe it is being used as a political scare tactic meant to villify our organization. Residents should be aware that no fire station will be closed as a result of a “NO” vote. The fire station on Prospect Street has been eyed for a very long time for possible closure, and that possibility was going to be studied anyway. Whether you vote “YES” or vote “NO” that possible fire station closure will still be looked at. We were told this by past Town Manager Jim Francis last year.

Very simply, we are advocating for residents to vote “NO” on this current budget on October 7th because a 5.5% + increase in our taxes from last years tax bill is simply too high of an increase in these difficult economic times. We are all tightening our belts and we expect our government to do the same. We feel that Town management should be committed to finding efficiencies and savings in many areas of the budget without sacrificing entire programs or needed services. They even had a million dollar surplus in their operating budget, which we understand has already now been spent. We have been advocating for a due diligence/best practices audit to be conducted by a citizens committee at no expense to the taxpayer, to investigate where there may be waste and possible areas of savings, but this has been voted down by our elected officials. We wonder why they are refusing to co-operate and allow citizens to take a good look at the town check book, and how town credit cards are being used along with other policies and practices. We feel that citizen participation is crucial to open government and is the founding principal of true democracy.

The heart of the problem that West Hartford is facing has to do with employee compensation, namely pensions and benefits. The changes that were made to the last version of the budget were mostly one-time adjustments which reduced operating expenses or increased non-tax revenue but they didn’t address the underlying and ongoing problem. The reductions that were made also did not do anything to lower our taxes in any meaningful way. Residents must understand that we are facing an issue of sustainibility. We have employee fringe benefit costs that are rising at 2.5 times the rate of inflation! Hence, the risks to the town remain the same and the analysis conclusions are unchanged. If we continue along this line of spending our taxes will rise 42% by the end of 4 years! Future fiscal solvency and sustainability are facing our town and other towns.

We are also facing issues of misplaced priorities. We wonder why it is that the Town is spending millions of dollars on granite curbed medians with tree plantings when our swimming pools are crumbling. We wonder why important infrastructure like road repairs and heating systems in Town buildings are being shoved aside while we spend money on astroturf and flower planters. We wonder why programs are cut from our children’s classrooms and instead the dollars go to administrative pay increases. There is clearly a culture of tax and spend that needs to be addressed in our town and that is why we want to bring this to the public’s attention. We think that our elected officials and the people they hire to manage departments can do a better job. That is all that we are asking them to do.

Finally, we applaud the West Hartford Fire Department, and the Police Department as well, for the splendid job they do to protect us all. Consider that the WHFD may have been underfunded because of the money wasted on pretty granite medians or brick pavers in places where pedestrians rarely walk. We think it is a gross disservice to use our first responders as a weapon to stop you from demanding responsible spending in government. It is even a further insult to lay the blame of misplaced spending priorities of our Town government at the feet of the West Hartford Taxpayers Association who have absolutely no say in how the budget is allocated. Think about that when you enter the voting booth on October 7.

11 Responses to “Guest Post: WHTA”

  1. Robert said

    Let met begin by saying that I’m sympathetic to arguments raised on both sides of the debate. Yet I’m not willing to vote against the budget only to watch the town government maraud the schools again. It’s clear that those who negotiated salaries and benefits for town workers failed in their basic responsibility to protect the taxpayers from runaway expenditures, but how will voting “no” change the salary and benefit crisis? It won’t. Punishing families with kids in the public schools for the reprehensible decisions of town managers is rather like punishing taxpayers for Wall Street’s greed and mismanagement. Voting against the budget won’t force re-negotiations with town employees. Municipal bankruptcy might, but no one advocates that. I wish I could offer a solution to the larger problem, but all I can offer is the conviction that voting “no” won’t solve much of anything.

  2. henry said

    Voting “NO” sends a message that they have to change their spending habits and be more prudent. Otherwise what do we do? Just roll over? If they choose to maraud the schools then it further demonstrates they are incapable of doing the job we expect them to do, and maybe they need to be voted out of office.
    Surely town department heads can manage without tacking on 5 and 6% increases year after year, and they should be directed to deliver a budget that represents a percentage increase that follows the cost of living and inflation increases. If my family can do without certain expenditures and live within our means so can town government.

  3. Cynic said

    Unfortunately, voting Yes tells the Council and BOE that their scare tactics have worked. Throughout the spring and summer opinions and suggestions were given to both the Council and BOE, both have ignored any suggestion made to them. A Yes vote tells them to keep on doing what they are doing.

    Last year the BOE cut Quest to get parents upset, this year they managed to figure out how to put it back. Instead they are increasing class size, of course those complaining about increased class size also refused redistricting – you can’t have it both ways. The Council picked the program they were sure would get people riled up by cutting leaf pickup, somehow they found the money to put it back in. Francis resigns, and VanWinkle gets an immediate raise for a position that is supposed to be temporary. Will this only act to increase his retirement payout? Then the Council makes sure to publiclly announce the possible closing of a Firehouse 2 weeks before the referendum, this possible closing is not new and has been up for discussion for a while. They are constantly trying to manipulate the Taxpayer with emotional issues

    The Council and BOE have had years of 6.5% annual tax increases, last year the Taxpayers told them enough, and the tax increase was held to 4.5%. This year they want another 5.5%. This is an unsustainable rate of tax increases. One Town in California has declared bankruptcy due to the same problems that are plaguing our Town. The Town government has to get this budget under control or we will be doing the same.

  4. Cynic said

    Henry, your comments got me to watch the video.And they accuse the WHTA of misinformation.

    They bring up the Fire House several times, no mention that it may be closed no matter what happens to the budget. It has been looked at before and they will continue to evaluate it. The Fire Chief seems to think the Town will be fine with it closed, it’s the union that is arguing to keep it open.

    I don’t recall any teachers contracts being cancelled last year. The BOE approached the union for concessions but was told to go to hell. Who knows what’s going on in the current contract talks. But, it sounds like they got rid of Barbara C. because she was trying to be conciliatory to the Town.

    Crowded Classes, this same group came about because they did not want their kids redistricted. Instead we can expand the Capital Improvement budget to expand school size.

  5. John Hardy said

    It was reported at the first BoE meeting in September that two teacher’s contracts for the 2008-09 school year were subsequently rescinded in conjunction with the budget reductions made after the first referendum. I believe (not 100% certain) that move resulted from the reduction in the number of needed class “sections” due to the increase in size guidelines.

    Duffy and Norfeldt are among the schools where class sizes are at the maximum 28 in grades 4 and 5. There was no talk of redistricting in the spring at either of these schools. Crowding issues at Duffy were initially to be handled through the reconstitution of a gym locker room.

    All potential efficiencies ought to be identified and studied in a complete and transparent manner. I am opposed to a knee-jerk reaction such as closing a firehouse without such a process (which would properly include a cost/benefit analysis). If closing it is clearly the correct choice, as identified by a thorough, objective and public process, I will support doing so. That is the responsibility of all of us identifying as “pro-budget supporters.”

  6. Cynic said

    Thank you John,

    the video was not clear and it sounded like an entire contract had been abrogated. Weren’t these 2 teachers interim teachers, part of a group hired annually on a temporary basis and their numbers adjusted once they know the number of classes?

    Also John, you have warned both the Council and Board of the dangers of the skyrocketing benefits costs. Have they reponded to you at all? Have they started looking for answers to this problem?

  7. whforums said

    In what will likely be a vain attempt to bring some order of out of chaos, it strikes me that if we’re debating the merits of the WH FIRST video, we should be doing it in the WH FIRST thread, not the WHTA thread (in the WHTA thread, we should be debating the merits of the WHTA contribution). Unfortunately, I have no power (or no understanding of my supposed power) to move your posts. So, I’ll simply let that suggestion stand.

    If we’re determined to continue debating a video to which no one in the thread has linked, you can continue an informed discussion after watching the video here:

    That said — a refocusing question.

    What do we think of the WHTA post?

  8. WH Alum said

    “Crowded Classes, this same group came about because they did not want their kids redistricted. Instead we can expand the Capital Improvement budget to expand school size.” …

    Norfeldt had the classroom space – there was no discussion of redistricting there. They lost the teaching position. An interim teacher was bumped out of the long-term sub for maternity leave position and another teacher was moved into that classroom. The teacher returning from maternity leave does not have a classroom to return to. I don’t know the policy from here, but if her job is guaranteed then she bumps someone else somewhere in the district. Yes contracts were rescinded. I understand it was new hires, not whps teachers, but that does not change the fact that jobs were lost.

  9. John Hardy said

    Cynic –

    I honestly don’t recall if the rescissions were for interim positions or not (it appears that WH Alum knows more about the specifics). Regardless, if we want to attract and retain good teachers (get test scores up; teach our kids efficiently, etc.) the bigger problem here is that two people were told they’d have jobs in WH, may have given their notice someplace else, and then were told they didn’t have jobs here. While that action was clearly part of the reality of our finances this summer, it detracts from WH’s ability to attract/retain. (And yes, I have heard of it happening in the private sector, but it wasn’t pretty there either.)

    As to your benefits question, my view as someone who does this work professionally is that there are two broad activities we (WH) need to undertake as an employer:

    (1) long-term, we need to create serious dialogue amongst the citizenry, and then with our employees, over the concept of “total compensation” (I recently posted more on this over at TOWH (sorry, too old and tired to attempt the HTML tonight: https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=8964564652551074242&postID=7516536263010555563); and

    (2) in the short/mid-term we need to get more of a “risk management” mindset around particularly our employee healthcare program. I won’t bore you with all the possible techniques. Just know that doing so could not only mitigate cost increase trends, but also support the health of the people participating in our plans.

    These kinds of initiatives are what I’ve spoken about publicly – and frankly we (citizens, WH leadership, WH labor unions) have a long way to go in doing so.

  10. WH Alum said

    “I honestly don’t recall if the rescissions were for interim positions or not (it appears that WH Alum knows more about the specifics).”

    I only know for sure about that one particular situation at Norfeldt. Across the district I am not certain if there were interim or permanent positions cut. But an interim teacher is usually filling in for a permanent staff member, right? At KP I am pretty sure several full-time permanemt positions were cut because a full team (5 teachers) was cut back to a 1/2 team (2 full time and one half).

  11. John Hardy said

    Thanks WH Alum.

    To be certain my earlier comments were clear: the were a number of teaching positions eliminated throughout the district. Almost all were by attrition. Having said that, it’s my understanding that there were two teachers who were actually “unhired” as a result of the position reductions.

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