Concerned Residents Participate In ‘A New Town Conversation’
Newtown resident Rudy Magnan led the citizen-organized event called “A New Town Conversation” in the C.H. Booth Library’s Meeting Room on the evening of March 7.
The two-hour discussion offered residents the opportunity to speak publicly with elected town and state officials about topics like new taxes, programs, and budgets.
First Selectmen Dan Rosenthal, State Representative Mitch Bolinsky, Board of Finance Chair James Gaston, Board of Finance member Steve Hinden, and Legislative Council District 1 Representative Paul Lundquist were among the local officials to speak with the nearly two dozen residents in attendance.
Handouts on the night’s anticipated topics were provided near the entrance of the Meeting Room. Some papers detailed information about the school budget, including a Letter to The Editor from Joe Kearney titled “Defeat the School Budget” that was published in The Newtown Bee in January; and a detailed list of compiled questions pertaining to unfunded mandates from the State, cost shifting of teachers’ pensions, and student enrollment in Newtown.
Mr Magnan started off the meeting by saying he has lived in Newtown for about a decade now and loves the town, but he has found it “very disheartening” that only 17 percent of the Newtown population voted for the last town budget.
“We’ve got to do better than 17 percent,” he said.
As a co-founder of the League of Senior Voters, along with Stephen Rosenblatt, Mr Magnan has organized local events to bring recognition to senior needs in town. He says he has also attended public town meetings to bring forth suggestions.
“A lot of times, we would say things, and propose things, and we would look at everyone listening — whether it be the Board of Finance, Legislative Council, or Board of Education — and we would get no sense of what they were thinking,” Mr Magnan said. “There was no chance to have a conversation, exchange ideas, partly because they were in a public hearing and there are certain rules and regulations you have to follow.”
Mr Magnan hoped that by having this meeting, and upcoming ones like it, there would be an opportunity for residents to have an open dialogue. He wants residents to know they can have an impact, and they can even write letters to officials to articulate how they feel.
“Hopefully this meeting will bring some type of awareness for what is going on,” he said.
The first topic of conversation pertained to taxes in Newtown. A resident spoke up and said that when he lived in Ridgefield, he saw the town had a similar problem with high taxes, but that Ridgefield helped seniors on a fixed income by creating a tax relief program. He would encourage Newtown to adopt a similar policy to help the older demographic, in the hopes they will be able to stay in their homes longer.
Shortly after, another man in the audience added that he has a friend who moved from Newtown to Georgia, where town and school taxes are separate and residents older than 65 do not have to pay school taxes. Another resident voiced the high Connecticut taxes are not just causing individuals to leave, but also companies.
While some residents shared general concerns, others brought up specific issues affecting their lives and livelihood in Newtown.
When a resident shared about his frustration with the excessive land taxes and that he felt it was set at an unfair rate, Mr Rosenthal said he would look into the concern and would like to speak with him more about it after the meeting to help.
Members of the audience did not have to share their names publicly when making comments during the meeting.
Also in the audience at the Town Conversation event was State Representative Mitch Bolinsky. He began his talk by saying that the most important thing everyone needed to know about Governor Ned Lamont’s budget is that it is a starting point and subject to negotiation.
“The participation of our local residents in public hearings actually makes a big difference, because when there are parts of the budget that are truly objectionable, the worst way to deal with that is to be silent and be angry,” Mr Bolinsky said.
Members asked Mr Bolinsky about teachers’ pensions and tolls. Among his answers, he encouraged people to write to him and said that he is going to be putting together a regional forum about tolls in April at Danbury City Hall.
For inquiries addressing Newtown’s declining student enrollment and the increased education budget, Board of Finance members clarified information.
Mr Hinden said that from 2013 to now, the compound annual growth rate has been 1.3, while the median growth rate has been around 2.2.
“There has been suppressed spending in this town’s Board of Ed budget relative to our comparatives...” Mr Hinden said.
He cited also that the special education program has grown and explained, “It’s an unfunded mandate. We have to provide these services, and we wouldn’t want to not provide these services. These are the most vulnerable students in our district.
“When you take that out and think about what we are spending for the rest of our students, [the cost per student] actually went down for two years. In the time from 2013 to 2017, it was virtually flat, all while teacher costs and labor costs have been going up by 2.2 percent… we also would not want to short our teachers,” Mr Hinden added.
Last year, he said, the budget went up just three-quarters of a percent.
As for the topic of potentially closing a school due to the current declining enrollment, Board of Finance chair Mr Gaston said it would actually cost the town more to close a school and that it is projected there will be an increase in enrollment for 2024.
“The enrollments in K-4 are not declining, they are increasing... we need the elementary schools. If you close an elementary school, you’d be building another one in five years, which doesn’t make any sense,” Mr Gaston said. “That’s one of the reasons Hawley [Elementary School] was not closed.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Legislative Council member Mr Lundquist requested, “If there are questions about the budget and how it works, let’s get them to us, the Legislative Council, over the next couple of weeks.”
The Legislative Council’s next public meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 20, 7 pm, at the municipal center.
“It’s another good opportunity for people to come in and speak their mind about the budget,” Mr Lundquist said. “Unfortunately, it’s one of those one-way only conversations, but it really does make an impact to hear people’s perspectives.”
In an e-mail to The Newtown Bee on March 11, Mr Magnan said that he felt the event was successful and “an important step in motivating residents to take interest and become part of the conversation.”
He added, “There were many questions that were not asked due to the time constraints. But these will be raised in the next meeting in early April.”
The upcoming meeting is expected to take place Tuesday, April 9, at 5:30 pm, at the C.H. Booth Library, 25 Main Street.
“The next ‘Conversation Meeting’ will also focus on new, relevant information about the cost sharing opportunities, which the State has offered school districts to offset the additional expenses generated by increased special education programs and unfunded state mandates,” Mr Magnan told The Newtown Bee on March 12. “Furthermore, the justification and responsibilities attached to an additional administrative position for a Director of Teaching and Learning will also be on the agenda.”
During the March 7 meeting, Mr Magnan mentioned that he had invited Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku, but that she was unable to attend.
In a public comment on The Newtown Bee’s website in regards to Mr Magnan’s Letter to the Editor called “A New ‘Town Conversation’” that was published on February 28, Ms Ku responded on March 2 by writing, “I let Mr Magnan know that I had commitments on each of the three days he proposed (Board of Education meeting on 3/5, Legislative Council meeting at which the BOE budget would be presented on 3/6, and an EdAdvance Board of Directors meetings on 3/7). Additionally, I noted my concerns that meetings comply with FOIA requirements. I did not receive a response.”
She added, “This is a great opportunity to remind anyone interested in providing elected officials with face-to-face feedback that most meetings have an opportunity for public participation. Also, throughout the budget season, there are public hearings on the town calendar specifically scheduled to hear input regarding the budget. As one of many elected officials, I look forward to hearing from you.”
To contact Newtown’s elected officials and town boards, visit newtown-ct.gov.
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