Charter Panel’s Research Finds Tepid Support For Ballot Questions

With more than a week to research the issue, most of the current Charter Revision Commissioners came back to a meeting August 7 with feedback from towns across the state that have split, or bifurcated, their budgets. The commissioners also solicited plenty of advice from officials in those towns about placing budget questions on referendum ballots — with the overwhelming sentiment leaning against the idea.

Dr George Coleman spoke with town leaders in Windham, which, like Newtown, incorporates several villages and encompasses the Borough of Willimantic. He said Windham officials complained that ballot questions created confusion around the referendum, and some thought that questions restricted the budget voting process.

Windham voters also apparently became frustrated when directives from advisory questions contrasted with the eventual budget resolutions effected by elected leaders.

“The ballot process was cumbersome and confusing,” Dr Coleman added.

Commissioner Michelle Koo said that while Windham currently has a provision that allows budget questions, the town does not use them regularly. Windham, however, does currently have a bifurcated budget, but ironically, she said, the community has a charter commission of its own seated now to consider merging its split budget.

“There’s a feeling [a single budget] could lead to more cooperation and less divisiveness,” Ms Koo said.

Dr Coleman further noted that 2012 marked the first year that Windham’s budget passed on the first referendum, and credited in part, the fact that the town was assigned a state-appointed special master to oversee its school district.

“This new school leader brought more discipline and transparency to the school budget,” said Dr Coleman, a former acting state education commissioner familiar with the town’s situation. He said the special master was able to publicly present “a school budget that the town felt comfortable approving.”

Windham’s history under a bifurcated budget saw the binding town side vote passing regularly on the first referendum, while most years the school vote took several attempts, five referendums in 2010.

“The past three or four times [before 2012] it was a bad situation,” Dr Coleman said.

Ms Koo said while permitting budget questions, the Borough of Naugatuck has a vastly different system where the budget goes to town meeting unless it is petitioned to referendum, and the petition also determines if there will be budget questions, and how those questions will be scripted.

But she also heard from Naugatuck officials that “people game the system.”


Questions Are Confusing

The Town of Lebanon has a single budget with questions on the ballot that refer to the town and school budgets. But the town clerk in that community said that the questions can be confusing to voters, and that taxpayers are not presented with breakdowns of the bottom line town and school requests, even though they can answer questions about each side on the ballot.

Commissioner Nick Schmidt added that the town clerk and registrar of voters in Lebanon both said they oppose having ballot questions. Dr Coleman said that the advice he received from Windham was “have as few questions as possible,” and only one if possible.

Ms Koo said she was hearing that questions were not only confusing to taxpayers, but the answers were sometimes confounding to the elected body that has to deal with revising a failed budget.

Commissioner Craig Lehecka learned in his research that a bifurcated budget does not measurably increase voter turnout — particularly after the first few years following a change in the process. On the other hand, officials he spoke with said they believe bifurcation helps and informs the process in the event of budget failures.

“And most people think the questions are terrible,” Mr Lehecka added.

Looking into the local history of budget questions, Commissioner Schmidt said he had a hard time determining exactly why Newtown stopped using ballot questions, which were common in the 1980s and up to the mid-1990s. He said there was some evidence pointing to the secretary of the state’s office taking issue with the content or legality of the language of those questions, which may have caused them to be removed.

He also said that historical notes and information from a charter revision around the time those ballot questions disappeared was not immediately available to him when he went looking in the town clerk’s vault last week. Commissioner Schmidt also noted that a 2007 charter panel unanimously rejected both bifurcation and budget questions among its final recommendations.

Commissioner James Ritchie noted that based on data, none of the town budgets in the years when questions were incorporated passed on the first round.

Commissioner Schmidt then posed two questions, “What problem are we trying to solve? How do we help the LC with guidance over what No means?”


Underlying Competition

Commissioner Robert Hall said his research involved contacting New Milford and Simsbury officials. He said contrary to some reports, New Milford does not have a truly bifurcated budget, because if one side fails, both sides go back for deliberation and then a new split budget is presented to voters. Neither side is binding when the other side fails.

Commissioner Hall spoke to New Milford school officials who favored a truly split budget, a prospect Mr Hall said he supports locally. He said in speaking with the town clerk in Simsbury, and a realtor he knows in New Milford, both said with a split budget there is always an underlying competition between the town and Board of Education for budget funds.

In Simsbury, Commissioner Hall said the budget vote typically goes smoothly because town finance and school board members meet with the Board of Selectmen very early in the vetting process to orient and get information out to voters about the anticipated needs of each department in the coming fiscal cycle.

“And none of them thought budget questions were meaningful,” Mr Hall said, adding that Simsbury has the added advantage of a seven percent debt cap, which decreases the debt service cost on the town side of the budget each year.

Commissioner Ritchie, who researched the Town of Madison, said officials there had no interest in adding budget questions.

“There’s no question, they don’t want them,” he said. “Adding questions would be confusing.”

In Madison, however, Mr Ritchie learned there is widespread collaboration between all town departments. He said the town and school pool resources; the town has a single finance director and IT department, as well as a single town custodial staff for its public buildings.

“They are very collaborative, that’s their culture,” Mr Ritchie said of Madison. “They have a joint budget presentation and mutual support of each other’s budget. With so much shared, they don’t want to see too much reduction.”

Mr Ritchie said the Madison first selectman told him that if Newtown approves budget questions, they should be designed so they “don’t get in the way of elected officials ability to make decisions.” And he said officials there make it clear to all residents that a No vote means no increase.

“If their budget fails, it is going down,” he said.


The Flexibility Question

Commission Chairman John Godin observed that in a scenario where a split budget vote is binding and one side fails because supporters want it increased, “you don’t have the flexibility to go to the town side” for the money.

Commissioner Hall said that in that situation, if one side goes down because it is deemed too low, the No voters are forcing the town to raise taxation to meet the demand.

Mr Lehecka said he liked the idea of a binding split budget, but noted that doing so in Newtown could compromise the current town effort to find more ways to combine or merge services between the school and town.

Mr Godin said Watertown has had a nonbinding split budget since 1966. But he said the town has a much longer time frame allotted to pass the budget, and after several years of the school side failing and causing “a lot of trouble on the Board of Education side,” this year the budget passed on the first vote.

He said this year the town manager and superintendent each committed to reviewing and fully understanding the intricacies of each other’s budget.

“The town manager told me that ‘unless I can defend or explain every dollar in the Board of Education budget, I’m not doing my job.’ So their success [this year] comes from collaboration and cooperation,” Mr Godin said. He added that Watertown never used advisory questions.

“They found this black magic and now the council and Board of Ed is 100 percent behind [the budget proposal],” Mr Godin said. Before adjourning, Mr Godin agreed to have Ms Koo complete as much data gathering as she could before the next meeting, to try and determine if historically, towns with split budgets saw more school budget failures.

Mr Godin said he has reserved the Senior Center for possible meetings on August 14 and 16, and 20, and that the commission’s final public hearing would be on August 16. The commission has until August 22 to present a recommendation to the full council regarding possibly bifurcating and/or adding budget questions.

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