Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Between The Lines

originally published in the Hartford Advocate June 28, 2007

Between The Lines
Tax activists would love to suggest some cuts to the town budget, only the budget isn’t itemized, so where does the money go?

By Jennifer Abel

You know how some people say that complaining is useless unless you offer some constructive criticism, too? The West Hartford Taxpayers’ Association admits it can’t find much constructive to say.

Get this: a few months ago, when next year’s proposed town budget came out, the association was dismayed to find that once again, tax bills would increase at a rate roughly double that of inflation.

"A lot of people are thinking of leaving town because they can’t afford the taxes," said association president Theresa McGrath. So the WHTA held a petition drive and collected enough signatures to force the referendum, where voters defeated the proposed budget by a margin of nearly three to one.

Score one for the taxpayers’ association. Then ask the obvious question: if they think the budget is too high, what cuts do they recommend?

"I don’t know," McGrath admitted as she sat on the back deck of her modest two-bedroom home and pored through a copy of the budget on the patio table before her. It’s a massive document, that budget, and looks quite impressive: high-quality binder, glossy colored separators, and an overall sense of graphic design much higher than you’d expect for a small-town municipal budget.

Pretty dull reading, though. Nonetheless, McGrath has spent hours poring over it. So why can’t she suggest any cuts?

"The budget is not a line-item budget," she said. "Each department shows a dollar increase, but they’re not telling us what they’re spending it on."

Here’s what she means: suppose you need to cut expenses, and think maybe you can trim a few dollars from your grocery bill. By listing individual food purchases, you can look through them and say "I can save money here by replacing steak with ground beef, and there by replacing Domino sugar with store-brand."

But you can’t do that if all your groceries are lumped together into a single line item labeled "Food." And that’s how West Hartford’s budget is written.

"Wages and salaries for the town manager’s department increased by 18.2 percent [from last year]," McGrath said, pointing out the relevant statement in the budget book. "We were told by his office that his salary wasn’t increasing this year. They said that large percent increase resulted from moving the previous town manager’s salary from another portion of the budget."

Did they say which portion? "No. So we don’t know if that portion of the budget was [correspondingly] decreased."

McGrath showed other vague examples: "fringe benefits" for one town department increasing nearly 40 percent, and "special allocations" for another increasing 127 percent (in this case, $470,000).

Naturally, the Advocate asked the town manager about these increases. Or tried to, anyway — he didn’t return our calls. His secretary says he was stuck in various meetings.

Anyway, those increases were in the old budget, the one rejected in the referendum. Maybe the new version will be more to the association’s liking?

"Nobody’s seen it yet," said Judy Aron, the association’s vice-president, on June 22. "The budget’s supposed to be discussed at the next town council meeting [on June 26], and presented to the Finance and Budget Committee the next morning at eight a.m. … Nobody’s put it on the [town] website. How can we discuss the budget if we haven’t seen it?"