West Hartford Forums

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West Hartford FIRST Proposal for a Better Budget Process

Posted by whforums on January 3, 2009

A few weeks ago, iBlog West Hartford had a post about the WHTA’s attempt to work more closely with town leaders (and to soften an image that may generally be perceived as partisan). As the WHTA attempts to gain access to the political process, West Hartford FIRST also remains active in making proposals for significant change in the way that West Hartford composes its budget (though WH FIRST has received less publicity – I mean, as far as I can tell, their proposals – and, more simply, their attempt to gain access to the political process – didn’t get any coverage in The Courant).

Even though you probably haven’t heard about it (at least I hadn’t heard about it until the document below showed up in my inbox), WH FIRST has written a detailed, nine point proposal that calls for a more clear – and a more democratic – budget process for West Hartford. WH FIRST would like to see a budget process that’s not only more transparent, but that also encourages and engages resident participation in each of its drafting stages. While the proposal mostly delineates specific ways that the budget process could be improved, WH FIRST’s more general point seems to be the following: the current problem with the West Hartford budget is that its residents only intersect the budget as a product (as a completed document with which one can largely agree or disagree) – not as a process. The document suggests that WH FIRST would prefer that West Hartford residents have formative access to budget development. In order to accomplish this end, the document argues not only for a more transparent process, but for more clearly organized and complete budget information. Highlights of the WH FIRST proposal (you should read the whole two page proposal, linked below, to get a real sense of what WH FIRST is after):

  • Improved presentation of information on all town websites, and better distribution of that information (via websites, listservs, etc.). This includes subcommittee minutes, agenda, etc.
  • More convenient times for subcommittee meetings /workshops (enabling more public participation) and television access for those meetings/workshops.
  • More proactive efforts to make sure that any inaccurate budget information is corrected during the budgeting process.
  • More question and answer sessions before public budget hearings.
  • Improved – and more consistent – disclosure of all personnel costs.
  • Evaluation of all town expenditures toward the goal of efficiency and sustainability.

Take a gander at the whole thing here (it’s a .pdf, and it’s two pages, so just download the doc already) and let your other web denizens know what you think. To me, it seems both reasonable and moderate. I guess the next step is to transform it into a checklist and to see what improvements we see in this year’s budget process.

Here’s to the dialog, etc.

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17 Responses to “West Hartford FIRST Proposal for a Better Budget Process”

  1. Hmmmm said

    Sounds to me like they want to do some version of a management audit – especially the last two bullet items.

    It also looks like what they are asking for is EVERYTHING that WHTA has asked for.

    What they are asking for is nothing new. WHTA has been asking for all of those items for as long as this taxpayer can remember.

  2. whta member said

    Why is wh first competing with the wh taxpayers association? Why during these troubling times won’t they work together? The whta wants to work with the town and the people, not compete with anyone. What’s up with wh first?

  3. Mary Fleischli said

    West Hartford FIRST recognizes that there is very good budget information already available and that much analysis is already done by the town and school officials. We offer these suggestions to help make sure that the information is more accessible and understandable to the average person and voter. As we enter this very difficult budget season, it is more important than ever that people understand the costs associated with the various services. As decisions are made to cut things, we want to make sure the voting public is informed when they vote. We don’t want them to assume that we can keep taxes from increasing without cutting services. By understanding the costs of the services and what the town is already doing to contain them, residents can offer informed suggestions to save costs that the town has not already explored. They can also support those services they view as core to our town and our values and support the budget that sustains a level of core services.

    I have seen the WHTA asking for audits but that is not what we are asking for. We are just asking for more information to be available and accessible. I don’t see WH FIRST as “competiting with the WHTA.” I am sure there are some things we agree on – probably many of the suggestions in this document. But, I’m sure there are other things we disagree on.

  4. Concerned Parent said

    Mary, why are you so sure there are things WH First won’t agree with the WHTA on? What does WH First stand for vs the WHTA? As a parent of children in the WH Schools, I’d really like understand the differences of opinions between the two organizations.

  5. Hmmmm said

    Mary you are asking for an audit if you are saying “Evaluation of all town expenditures toward the goal of efficiency and sustainability.”

    An evaluation of all town expenditures is an audit.

  6. John Hardy said

    “Hmmmm”: First, let’s be precise about the wording. Here are the two items in the document to which you refer:

    8. More Attention to Sustainability
    • Make public Town analyses regarding the long-term sustainability of public spending in West Hartford.
    • Include this topic in community discussions of spending and programming.

    9. More Information about Cost Control
    • Provide specific information to the public regarding both ongoing and planned efforts to control costs and increase efficiency.
    • Where they do not exist, institute regular procedures for evaluating the efficiency and efficacy of all Town and School programs and services. Regularly disclose the results of such evaluations.
    • Improve employee suggestion programs.

    Here are a portion of my comments when introducing the document to the Town Council on December 9:

    “Finally, we have been hearing calls for audits of Town functions, as well as discussion of the issue of long-term “sustainability” of public spending in West Hartford. We understand from statements made by the former Town Manager that the Town has already undertaken detailed analyses of both Town revenues and expense needs over a long-term basis. Mr. Van Winkle has done a good job during his short tenure in orally reporting during Council meetings about ongoing cost control efforts by Town leadership. As suggestions 8 and 9 note, we hope that these kinds of reports can be continued and formalized on a permanent basis.”

    WH FIRST is not calling for anything more than what we understand is already being accomplished by staff, based upon comments made at Council and Board of Education meetings. We ARE asking that Town and School administrations and elected officials be more complete in sharing their findings with the public.

  7. Concerned Parent said

    Again, what’s the difference between WH First and WHTA? Audit or no audit…things you agree on and things you don’t agree on….differences please…

  8. Concerned Parent said

    …and, why not an audit?

  9. John Hardy said

    Concerned Parent:

    Here’s my answer about the agreements and differences between WHTA and WH FIRST (and I emphasize that this post is just my own opinion).

    During last year’s budget season, the “differences” largely concerned what was a palatable and reasonable level of spending for the Town and Board of Education. Those differences were publicly and broadly discussed.

    Now, the WHTA’s reconstituted mission statement appears to indicate that both groups are heading in the same direction from at least a macro perspective. As Mary suggested, WHTA members probably agree on many of the points expressed in our budget process suggestions…but I don’t want to be presumptuous on that point.

    Actual, substantive differences may become apparent as the specifics of the budget process reveal themselves. For example if the Courant’s report that the WHTA “voted…[in December]…to press the council to commit now to a zero tax increase” is accurate, then I’d agree with the remarks attributed to Mayor Slikfa that such a vote is premature. (And I acknowledge Mr. Kennedy’s observation in the same article that the vote was to set a desirable goal, and not a time-bound one.)

    As to your audit question: I am not prepared to go through the time and probable expense of an “audit” (choose your term) until we are clear as to what has been accomplished already. As I indicated in my previous post, our suggestions call for more disclosure of that kind of information. Candidly, (and again this is my opinion and not necessarily WH FIRST’s) public disclosure of that sort of work has been lacking.

    Targeted external reviews will certainly always be valuable – for example the two recent Board-sponsored reviews of the Gifted & Talented offerings, and the provision of Special Education in the district.

  10. Mary Fleischli said

    Concerned parent,

    If you are interested in finding out more about our organizations, you can check out our websites:
    http://www.whfirst.org
    http://www.whta.org

    I will leave it up to the WHTA to explain what they believe or stand for… In terms of what they have done – they have collected the signatures to petition for budget referendums and have encouraged people to vote NO on the budget.

    I will speak on behalf of West Hartford FIRST since I am the president of it. West Hartford FIRST was formed to make sure West Hartford residents learn about the budget and to advocate for responsible spending to support our town. We supported the budget in the last two referendums since we saw the originally proposed April budget to be a maintenance budget that would have retained the existing level of services. Our group paid for the “VOTE YES on the budget” signs you may have seen around town. After the budget failed, one of the major cuts that was upsetting to me was the increase in class size guidelines which enabled our town to save money on teacher salaries but meant that some schools had 28 kids in a classroom – for example, Braeburn’s 5th grade has 28 kids in all three classes. If you are a parent in today’s school system you will probably recognize why, given the varied levels of current acheivement and English, this class size will make it very challenging for teachers to make sure no children are left behind and no children are left unchallenged.

    WH FIRST recognizes that the current economy and the drop in state revenues will likely mean cuts to education funding and other state funding that West Hartford receives. So, we are anticipating a very difficult budget year. This is why we felt it was more important than ever for the town and school administration to share budget information to educate the public. This is not the same thing as asking for an audit. An audit would require a diversion of resources to answer all the audit questions and would be a distraction from the important budget work they need to focus on. The majority of our requests are to make public work that is already done or create summaries.

    I hope this answers your questions.

  11. Cynic said

    So I guess nothing has changed, Mary.

    You’ll look at what is presented, accept it without question as you did last year and say “tax me more”

    No question on salaries for new hires, no redoing the defined benifit plans as defined contribution plans, no audit of business personal property (as other towns are doing)- he’ll the homeowners can carry the freight. No concern for the elderly and less fortunate who are being taxed into oblivion.

  12. John Hardy said

    Cynic:

    It would be helpful if you would indicate where, precisely and specifically, anyone from WH FIRST has said or written that we will “look at what is presented, accept it without a question…and say ‘tax me more’?” Or share evidence that is how some of us have reacted in the past?

    I for one can assure you that is not how I reach my decisions.

    Our group invested a good deal of personal time and effort to objectively study the West Hartford Town and School budget process and prepare suggestions to improve it. We were quite mindful and cautious that our product be completely devoid of issue advocacy, and that our requests would be reasonable to all of West Hartford. (Accordingly, there were ideas “left on the cutting-room floor.”)

    I am confident that our suggestions, if accepted and implemented, will improve the transparency and disclosure of our Town and School budgets and related issues, thereby enabling the public to engage in constructive debate and then make informed and educated decisions about our public finances.

    Your last paragraph cites some important concerns all of us as a community share. Why don’t you concentrate on providing us with greater information and data, or point us to where we might learn more about them? You might find some consensus.

    And even if we may not agree on the ultimate courses of action, I’m hopeful we can be neighbors and avoid the snarkiness this year.

  13. Robert Sisk said

    I am encouraged by the tone of this conversation. Hopefully this can be maintained throughout what will be a very difficult budget process in the coming months.

    Having analyzed the Town budget in detail, I have come to the conclusion that the significant differences of opinion between WHFirst and WHTA are due in large part to the short-term view taken by all parties in the annual budget process. Each spring a budget is presented as a “fait accompli” in which the largest elements, wages and benefits, are non-negotiable. The budget process then devolves into arguments over which services will be cut and which fess will be raised – neither of which has any significant impact on the overall budget. Unless, and until, meaningful long-term changes are made to the wage and benefit programs provided by the Town and BOE, the ship will continue to steer the same course.

    If true change is to be realized, all parties need to press for full dislosure of the current and future costs of the Town and BOE total compensation plans. Alternatives to current programs need to be openly and thoroughly discussed and if changes are needed, the Town Council and BOE must represent the will of their constituents and make the unpleasant, but necessary, choices to modify or eliminate unsustainable benefits and reduce inefficiencies. Finally, they must be willing to reduce headcount, as necessary, should other cost-cutting initiatives fail to produce acceptable results. There are no quick fixes and meaningful results can not be realized in one, or two, or even three budget cycles. All parties must recognize that the current situation is unsustainable and that a long-term commitment to rectifying it is needed.

  14. Chalenois said

    I think that there are places where cuts can be made without negatively impacting education or services.
    For instance, at Hall High there is an attendance department which has 3 employees. I don’t know that they are all full time positions, but at least one is. Why would we need 3 attendance personnel, what value do 3 add in excess of what 1 person can accomplish? Perhaps it is necessary, but I’d like to know more. If it is an over-staffed department, just think how many more areas there are like this to be found throughout the town.

  15. whta member said

    I would like to thank you Mr. Sisk for bringing realistic, common sense, intelligence to the table. Yes the discussions are important. I am glad we are having them. I am grateful you are a part of them.

    Last year’s budget most certainly was not appropriate. As it not only included a spending increase but a revaluation at the hight of the market increasing our taxes based on unralized capital gains.

    This was a recipe for disaster especially when anyone in the private sector was beginning to feel the initial affects of the economy.

    For our town to heed such hints and forewarnings of economists and finance professionals is actually quite disturbing. It was for these reasons people voted no. Those in the public sector or those who benefit from the public sector either didn’t want to see it or tried to get as much as they could before the town went broke.

    I grow concerned with groups who not just live for the moment but advocate for more even at the cost of the less fortunate.

    These increases have been unsustainable and now beyond unconcionable.

  16. iBlog said

    Chalenois,

    Whoever/whatever/wherever you are, I admire your honesty, sincere or not. You have ignored the humorously clumsy verbal dance of feigned inquisitiveness, politeness and sincerity in the surrounding posts and taken us right back to where we were last year – and will be again very soon.

    See you at the second referendum, dear “shall annoy” – “shall-eh-nwa” – Chalenois!!

  17. whforums said

    @WHTA member:

    First, let me say clearly that I speak only for me. I’m not a part of the WHTA or WH FIRST.

    I’m troubled not so much by what your post says, but by what it implies. Three particular passages I’d like to highlight (and you’re welcome to prove me wrong):

    1. “I would like to thank you Mr. Sisk for bringing realistic, common sense, intelligence to the table.” The implicit argument here is that WH FIRST bring only unrealistic, unintelligent and foolish ideas to the table. This is reinforced by the fact that your post does not directly respond once to the WH FIRST document linked above.

    2. “Those in the public sector or those who benefit from the public sector either didn’t want to see it or tried to get as much as they could before the town went broke.” To imply that “Yes” voters cast their votes out of self-interest (not community interest), and worse, to imply that they voted “Yes” with the hope or knowledge that it would bankrupt the town is a gigantic insult to the thousands of residents who did vote “Yes.” And it hardly echoes your claim “Yes the discussions are important. I am glad we are having them.” A cloak of equanimity really doesn’t hide your intent to inflame.

    3. “I grow concerned with groups who not just live for the moment but advocate for more even at the cost of the less fortunate.” Without once mentioning WH FIRST or responding to their document, you instead accuse them of the “carpe diem” policies and politics (and I’m talking the last 8 years of federal action and inaction) that got us into this gigantic financial mess to begin with. Your labeling WH FIRST as hoping to harm the poor is just the cherry on top.

    So, I’d like to know — did you read the linked document? This thread has 17 responses now, which is more responses that actual downloads (lots of people come through the thread, but few are reading the .pdf itself) of what WH FIRST actually wrote.

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