In a 9-3 vote April 3, the Legislative Council moved a budget request of $111,149,825 to an April 23 referendum. If approved the budget would increase spending about 4.7 percent over the current year, while generating a 5.24 percent tax increase according to Town Finance Director Robert Tait.
Because of this year’s revaluation, with average property values dropping markedly, an approved budget would bump the current 24.54 mill rate to 33.77. A mill represents one dollar in taxation for every $1,000 in taxable property.
In the final few minutes of Wednesday’s meeting, Mr Tait posted graphics explaining how the revaluation will affect homeowners. Responding to a question from the council, he reminded taxpayers that they could go to the town website to use an online calculator to determine their precise tax liability.
The final recommendation is being sent to voters as recommended by the Board of Finance, with no adjustments at the council level.
In one of the first items of business, Council Education Committee Chair Kathryn Fetchick moved a $72,095,304 school district spending request to vote. Ms Fetchick said at the committee level, the school’s proposal passed on a 4-2 vote after an amendment to reduce the district request by $350,000 failed.
Speaking before the full council Wednesday, member Robert Merola proposed an amendment reducing the school district’s requested increase by $500,000. Speaking to his request, Mr Merola suggested the district could afford to begin eliminating teachers at the high school level because of declining enrollment.
The councilman said that the district hired 15 to 18 new teachers after the new high school addition was built accounting for an anticipated boom in student population that never came. But Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein and district Business manager Ron Bienkowski both defended the hiring trends.
Ms Leidlein said taxpayers should not just consider overall district enrollment trends when looking at staffing, because population fluctuations are occurring across the four elementary schools. She said in cases where a certain elementary class may have a high number of students requiring special modifications, the pressure could be alleviated by moving one or more of those students to another class with fewer students needing accommodations.
But if a teacher is let go, it necessitates a reduction in a class at that grade level. Ms Leidlein said this year, elementary principals worked closely with the board producing classes with a balanced distribution of students requiring modifications.
Staff Numbers Declining
Mr Bienkowski confirmed there has been a decline in overall district hiring with 742 staff in the 2007 school year dropping to 717 this year. Mr Merola acknowledged that elementary staffing appeared to be justified, but he still felt the high school was overstaffed.
He also referred to the recently ratified teacher contract, saying, “a lot of (taxpayers) are not getting five to six percent raises.”
Councilman Dan Wiedemann expressed concern that the budget request was too high, and noted that the neighboring Town of Monroe, with a similar demographic as Newtown, experienced a defeat of its latest budget by 54 percent of the voters.
Council Vice-Chair Mary Ann Jacob pointed out that the budget proposals under consideration were essentially completed before the Sandy Hook School shooting, and that the recommendations should be maintained in the event unforeseen emergency needs arise, or the town and school district are unable to recoup certain 12/14 related expenses through a package of grants that are in process now.
Ms Jacob said this year, it will take a leap of faith to pass the budget, and noted that former Superintendent John Reed - a seasoned and trusted town resident – would be guiding the district in the coming year as its interim administrator.
Council Chairman Jeff Capeci countered that when taxpayers see that budgeted district needs related to 12/14 would cost $250,000, they will ask why the town is raising taxes so much. He also referred to the failed Monroe budget saying the overall request was a full one percent less than what is being asked of Newtown taxpayers.
In a role call vote, the amendment to cut $500,000 failed with only Mr Merola, Mr Wiedemann and Mr Capeci in support. The main motion then passed with the same three councilmen voting no.
Polling the remaining two council committees weighing in on the municipal side of the budget proposal, Mr Capeci was told that both unanimously recommended moving the town spending plan to the voters as proposed. The municipal measure then passed 10-2 with no further deliberation.
That moves a town-side request of $39,054,520, including $10,058,924 is debt service on committed school and town capital borrowing.
The budget request now goes before voters in a Tuesday, April 23 referendum. Voting will occur between 6 am and 8 pm at the Newtown Middle School Gymnasium.
According to Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia, any person who is a registered voter in the Town of Newtown or who is a US citizen who is assessed at least $1,000 for the Real Estate or Motor Vehicles on the 2012 Grand List for the Town of Newtown is qualified to vote at the Referendum.
Absentee Balloting Open
Absentee ballots are available for the Referendum at the Town Clerk’s Office Monday through Friday, 8 am to 4:30 pm, and the Town Clerk’s office will have special hours on Saturday, April 20 from 9 am to noon for the sole purpose of absentee ballot voting on the proposed budget.
Any qualified person who meets any of the following criteria may vote by absentee ballot:
1) active service in the Armed Forces,
2) absence from the town during all the hours of voting,
4) physical disability,
5) religious tenets which forbid secular activity on the day of the referendum or
6) duties as a referendum official at a polling place other than your own during all the hours of voting.
As per Connecticut General Statutes, for a referendum held with less than three weeks notice, qualified residents may obtain an absentee ballot by applying at the town clerk’s office in person or designating one of the following to be your designee:
1) a person caring for you because of your illness, including but not limited to a licensed physician or a registered practical nurse,
2) a member of your family,
3) a police officer in the municipality in which you reside or
4) a registrar of voters or deputy registrar of voters in the municipality in which you reside.
Absentee ballots can be returned in person to the town clerk by 4:30 pm Monday, April 22 or by mail or designee on referendum day by 8 pm
Any questions about absentee voting can be directed to the town clerk’s office at 203-270-4210.
This year’s vote will offer a split or bifurcated budget, with taxpayers having the opportunity to endorse the school and town-side spending plans separately. This referendum also marks the first time in recent history that voters will have budget questions asking them if they voted No on each segment of the budget proposal because it was too low.