WEST HARTFORD — In a 6-3 vote along party lines, the town council approved a fiscal year 2016-17 budget of $267.9 million at its Monday night meeting. The final budget calls for a property tax increase of 1.67 percent.
The town manager initially proposed a $269.3 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but a review of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed $3.2 million cuts to the municipal budget prompted town officials to reduce the proposed budget by $1.5 million.
The approved budget is an about $9.9 million, or 3.9 percent, spending increase over the current budget.
"Tonight, I am happy to say that as I pass my final budget, we are not using any gimmicks and are maintaining a long-term view," outgoing Mayor Scott Slifka said. "What are our residents getting for this budget? They are getting the best town in Connecticut."
Most of the cuts came from the non-schools side of the budget, originally proposed at $99.5 million. However, the board of education's proposed $153.6 million was cut by roughly $350,000, relating to a decreasing projection on health claims under the teacher/administrator health care benefits provided by the school board.
The overall town budget also provides $16.2 million for capital projects, a 7.1 percent increase from last year.
Council minority leader Republican Denise Hall said her no vote was symbolic and said discretionary spending is a policy decision that takes a while to implement.
"I have on more than one occasion offered to work with leadership to embrace any cost cuts they would like to propose," Hall said. "With only three votes on our side of the aisle, anything we propose is very likely to get voted down and can be used against us in an election."
Specifically, she said she loves the idea of new science labs at Hall High School, but was "floored" that the town couldn't build eight classrooms for under $12.8 million dollars. Councilman Chris Williams agreed, and said the budget "fails to support a mission of affordability."
Under the budget, the tax rate on real estate and personal property would increase from 38.31 mills to 39.51 mills, a difference of 1.2 mills, or $1.20 for each $1,000 of assessed property value. However, the tax rate on motor vehicles is going down by 6.31 mills to 32 mills, or 16.5 percent, due to a state imposed cap on the motor vehicle tax rate.
Director of Financial Services Peter Privatera said the total tax increase for an average homeowner — with a house assessed at $224,000 and two cars — is roughly $155.
Growth in the grand list of about 0.58 percent, or $34.2 million, is expected to generate a little over $1.2 million in revenue for the town.
If Malloy's budget passes, and the town loses the full $3.2 million from the state, Privatera said, town officials will have to use the current year's surplus to make up for it.
"Overall, this is a town budget that funds our current programs and past liabilities," councilman Ben Wenograd said. "It does it without tricks."
The budget controls costs while maintaining the quality of services the community has all come to expect, he said.
West Hartford Center Density Ordinance Hearing
In other meeting news, the council also heard from more than 20 residents Monday about an ordinance that would have increased density in West Hartford Center, where the median building height is two stories. The council withdrew the proposed ordinance after residents voiced concerns and said they weren't notified about it.
The ordinance could have allowed a developer to build residential units on a building's top floors up to five stories, with multiple contingencies. Currently, buildings are permitted to be no more than four stories, Town Planner Todd Dumais said.
Dumais said only a small amount of parcels would be able to utilize the ordinance, as the Center is comprised of smaller sized parcels that aren't likely, unless merged with other parcels, to accommodate any significant redevelopment.
The town plan and zoning commission recommended approval of the proposed ordinance.
Resident Scott Falk said he and his family sent a letter to the council with more than 100 resident signatures opposing the ordinance.
"There is a lot of really angry people out there and I'm really angry, too," Falk said. "I don't want that in my town. I don't want that on my street. Blue Back [Square] is isolated, it's surrounded by commercial development … Nobody wants four, five, six story buildings in the center of town."
After speaking with about 130 neighbors about the issue, Falk said he was concerned that no one was notified of the ordinance, or the notification system was poor, which many residents seconded.
Councilman Leon Davidoff said council members and town staff had no intention of sneaking "one by the residents." Good leadership prevailed and listened to residents and, as Mayor Scott Slifka suggested, conversation will be continued on the topic, Davidoff said.
The proposed ordinance stated that increasing the building height would be contingent on the ground-level face of the building being adjacent to a public street right-of-way. The fifth story of a proposed building must be set back at least 15 feet from the facade of the story directly below to keep the heights from imposing too much on the streets below.
The council also needed to find that adequate parking existed to meet the needs of the proposed development and that appropriate bicycle and pedestrian amenities were provided, according to the ordinance. However, even if the site conditions were met, the council would still have final approval over any application.
Resident Dan Matos said the ordinance is a step in the right direction, as it permits more housing opportunities in the Center for young adults and empty nesters.
Barbara Lerner, the Chamber of Commerce executive director, agreed, and said with housing demand comes the needs to look at expansion, and "extending up in a controlled manner would be the next best solution."
But LaSalle Road business owner John Green said the process didn't feel transparent.
"Change is the way of the world and we understand we need to embrace change," Green said. "We're not against changes, but we feel like you are rushing this vote without involving members of the community."