From Pencil To Print: Covering the Newtown Budget Process
Our occasional series “From Pencil To Print” shares how a story went from conception to a bylined feature for our print edition and website.
Whereas some stories are single-subject, stand-alone, and can be told in one relatively concise arc or just two or three installments, covering Newtown’s annual budget involves regular monitoring with a heavier concentration of reporting during the period between late fall and the hopeful conclusion of the annual process — when the split municipal and school districts are considered by voters on the last Tuesday of April.
In more than 16 years of covering the Newtown budget process, that process has changed somewhat because years ago, budget voters were asked to approve or reject the combined spending proposal. But after a charter revision was endorsed in 2012, the annual budget vote was bifurcated beginning the following year, giving taxpayers an equal opportunity to consider the municipal and school board spending proposals separately.
That revision also added budget questions to help direct the council in the event either or both parts of the budget failed, which ask the voter if the request they were voting on was “too low.”
More recently, in 2017, budget voters were given even more power over how taxpayer dollars are spent when another charter revision directed the most costly appropriations to be approved at the ballot box. Even appropriations funded by other than taxation have to be voter approved if they cost at least $1.5 million.
All of the buildup to the point where the separate budget proposals are presented at a Board of Finance public hearing happens in separate meetings of the Board of Selectmen — covered by myself, and this year by reporter Alissa Silber — and the Board of Education, covered primarily by reporter Eliza Hallabeck.
We produce reporting from myriad meetings of each of those two boards as they receive and deliberate on input from various administrators and department heads, from the school business manager and Town Finance Director Robert Tait, and any other individuals or entities that tap taxpayer funds for underwriting. For example, each year the selectmen’s budget funds some nominal requests from nonprofits that serve the community, from the Women’s Center in Danbury to the Connecticut Parent Connection (formerly Newtown Parent Connection).
The municipality’s budget also contains some underwriting for the Edmond Town Hall Board of Managers, and the C.H. Booth Library.
Merging The Details
As these dozens of separate entities begin weaving their financial underpinnings together and are endorsed by the school board and selectmen, both budget requests go to the finance board for a first-pass review. That board may or may not take action to recommend reductions or, in rare cases, an increase after receiving taxpayer input during its public hearing.
Once the finance board completes its review, its recommendations are presented to the Legislative Council, which then holds its own public hearing. Once the council receives both budgets, it relegates the school district request to an education subcommittee.
Another subcommittee examines and makes recommendations on various municipal operations budget lines after reviewing the Public Safety, Public Works, Health and Welfare, Planning, Recreation, and Leisure sections of the municipal budget proposal. A third administrative and finance committee reviews and makes recommendations on all projected municipal revenues; all remaining town departments and their respective overseeing boards and commissions; contingency and debt service; the Edmond Town Hall Board of Managers; and the town’s capital and nonrecurring account.
After those committees work through their charges, they converge and release their recommendations to the full council, which then deliberates and effectively sets the budget proposals for voters to consider, the proposed mill rate, and determines which capital spending authorizations — or in rare cases other budget questions — will appear on the ballot.
Our budget coverage once the selectmen and school board complete their work is typically branded by some type of graphic just to make it easier for readers to identify these reports. That graphic is then used every week that a budget report is included. This year, because of the pandemic, virtually all the meetings involving budget development were held remotely, so attendance typically occurred via Zoom or similar meeting platform, or via the municipal website’s video streaming service.
Occasionally because of a conflict, a meeting might be viewed after it happens live, but in time for reporting in the next edition of The Newtown Bee. At the same time, any significant news around the budget development could be produced and posted on newtownbee.com ahead of the print edition — although that did not occur this year.
The Home Stretch
In the final weeks before the budget vote, we produce reports that will reiterate the basic information, including the total proposed spending plan for the town and schools, their comparisons to the previous year’s approved budget, and the actual dollar difference. Reporting will also explain any budget questions, including analyses of the capital ballot requests, breakdowns of various department requests, and any information that can help voters better understand any unique requests from other departments.
On budget day, we monitor voter counts every few hours. We also usually visit the polling location at the Newtown Middle School to take photos earlier during the day, and in pre-COVID times, we would return to cover the results being announced. While the past two budget cycles demanded more distant coverage because of the pandemic, we are looking forward to returning to live budget night coverage, where we can take photos and videos, and speak to the officials directly involved in the process to get statements for the post-vote reporting.
There have been years in my tenure where the full combined budget failed, twice, and one instance where both the bifurcated proposals failed, after which the municipal request was approved and the school proposal failed again. Neither of those scenarios have been repeated since; however, the chronic issue of low voter turnout has consistently left the approval of tens of millions in taxpayer spending in the hands of comparatively few residents.
While covering the protracted annual budget process is not particularly exciting, it is a function that is growing quite unique to newspapers and media sources, as those outlets covering specific communities have suffered personnel reductions, constrictions in coverage, or closures altogether. Locally, The Newtown Bee has consistently covered local budget proceedings, and it has been a proud hallmark of this organization dating back to its beginnings in the late 1870s.
Since the information that comes from budget coverage inspires and/or informs so much of our other reporting throughout the year, I see it as a necessity and a responsibility that I and this newspaper embrace each year with diligence and meticulous attention to detail.
Associate Editor John Voket can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.