Shortly after reviewing a letter to the editor in this week’s pre-budget vote edition of The Newtown Bee, Legislative Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob reached out hoping to clarify what she believes is a lingering misconception regarding the council’s ability to add funds back if the school and/or town proposals fail at referendum April 22.
Ms Jacob said that while the issue of whether or not the council can add more money to either side appears to be a point of contention among a few residents, she is concerned that misinformation could still confuse budget voters, or worse, cause them to opt out of casting a budget ballot next Tuesday.
The concern was raised after a letter from longtime school supporter Kinga Walsh wrote that "Some residents want dollars added to the budget despite the charter language while other residents and elected officials say it cannot be done at all..."
Ms Walsh's letter goes on to state: "Despite being a part of the effort to have $240,000 added back after a $1 million reduction a few years ago, this year’s unprecedented budget level and the fact that there is a lot of pressure from many other resident groups to reduce the budgets overall, getting the necessary majority or super majority vote from the Legislative Council (LC) to have dollars added is highly unlikely if not impossible."
Ms Jacob said it is critical for residents and taxpayers to understand the fine print in Newtown's Charter, which only empowers the council to add back funds up to the amount originally requested by the Boards of Education and Selectmen. This year's budget is somewhat of an anomaly because after the Boards of Education and Selectmen made their final requests, the Board of Finance added funds to both budget lines.
Prior to unanimously recommending the 2014-15 busget proposal to the council, the finance board added $279,380 to the selectmen’s budget request to accommodate the hiring of school security officers (SSOs), and added $400,000 to infuse the town employees' self-insured health plan’s fund balance to cushion against anticipated rate and claims increases next year.
That expense was split proportionately based on participants, with $300,000 being added to the school district budget, and $100,000 being added to the selectmen’s budget.
In Section 6-13 of the Newtown Charter, it states the council "may increase any item in [the] budget or add items...on a two‑thirds affirmative vote...only to the extent that such items were included in the budgets proposed by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education and provided further that any increase in said budget shall not be in excess of the amount for said item in the budgets proposed by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education."
"Because the budget request going to referendum April 22 is more than was originally requested by the Boards of Selectmen and Education, the only council option if [either or both] proposals fail is to leave it the same or reduce it," Ms Jacob said.
The council chair said the charter is purposeful in its directive.
"The town and school administrations are the experts, so they request the budget they believe best serves the town. When the finance board or the council act to reduce either or both of those requests, they are acting as the fiscal authority on behalf of taxpayers," Ms Jacob said.
"That's why the state prevents even the fiscal authorities in municipalities from making line item reductions in school district budgets," she added. "Reductions made in the process of finance or council deliberations are financial decisions made either because there is new information — like in the case of the SSOs or the health plan allocations — or because the majority on either or both boards believes the requested amounts will not pass at referendum and they act to send voters a budget request they believe will pass."
Ms Jacob said she is very grateful for the work and advocacy Ms Walsh and many other residents put forth during the budget process. But the council official said circulating hypothetical or incorrect information in letters to the newspaper, via social networks, or e-mail chains ahead of a budget referendum can confuse voters weighing their decision at the polling place, or deciding whether to vote or not.
"This year the budget process is different than any budget in recent history for several reasons, and voters should have the facts," Ms Jacob said. "The charter installs a series of checks and balances when it comes to the budget process. That has meaning and it works."
The council chair also claified that even if either or both budgets fail, and the advisory questions advise that most voters believe the requested amounts were too low — the charter directive trumps the advisory opinions of voters.
"The budgets going before voters April 22 are as good as they are going to get in terms of the bottom lines," Ms Jacob said. "Any public implication that we can add money back proves there are still some misinformed taxpayers out there."