All qualified residents and property owners are being called to cast ballots on the proposed townwide budget request Tuesday, April 23. Polling will be at a single location — the gym at Newtown Middle School, 11 Queen Street — from 6 am to 8 pm.
Those who cannot cast a vote in person may do so during special absentee balloting hours Saturday, April 20, from 9 am to noon, in the town clerk’s office at the Newtown Municipal Center, or pick up and file a ballot Monday, April 22, between 8 am and 4:30 pm.
The upcoming referendum will mark the first time budget voters can extend approval or denial to the town and school proposals separately. A charter revision splitting or bifurcating the budget ballot was approved in 2012 and is now in effect.
Voters are also being asked to answer two budget questions — one relating to each side of the request. Those questions ask voters whether the proposed sums of the town and school request are too low.
Legislative Council Chairman Jeff Capeci is requesting that budget voters respond to both ballot questions, so that in the event one or both measures fail, the council will have some feedback to help officials achieve a new counterproposal.
Earlier this month, the council moved a budget request of $111,149,825 to referendum — $72,095,304 in school district spending requests, and a town-side request of $39,054,520 — which includes $10,058,924 in debt service on committed school and town capital borrowing.
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.
First Selectman Pat Llodra described this year’s budget process as ultimately challenging for both the officials involved as well as for taxpayers, not only because of the many unknowns related to 12/14, but also the local property revaluation that had occurred and was already being factored in long before the school shooting tragedy occurred.
“I ask the community’s indulgence and hope they will support this budget,” Mrs Llodra said. “Our first draft increase was just 1.9 percent, very modest, but it grew to the 3.4 percent increase we have today so we could meet school safety needs. We need residents to recognize this and support it.”
The first selectman praised the finance board and council members for performing a serious review of all the spending proposals.
“Adjustments were made at the finance board level, and I have great confidence in the final review made by council committees,” she said. “I know this year’s request will be difficult to manage, but it meets the needs we have and it is an increase we must ask for at this time.”
While Mrs Llodra said she could not perform as thorough a review of the school district proposal as in previous years due to her involvement with many other post-12/14 matters, she did endorse the district’s plan to initiate a full-day kindergarten program in the fall.
“I believe it’s time Newtown has a full-day kindergarten,” she said. “Despite our challenges, we need to continue to grow and implement a vision for our town. Part of that is offering a K through 12 system that is a hallmark of a thriving community.”
Officials Weigh In
Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein told The Bee she is encouraging voters to support the full budget, because in part, both are helping to address school security needs being proposed. And while just part of the anticipated new security costs are built into the district proposal, Ms Leidlein said an approved budget will also permit the district to move forward addressing current technology and maintenance needs, as well as implementing a full-day kindergarten program.
Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze said the proposal being put before local taxpayers April 23 is a critically important request.
“It’s hard for people to get their arms around what this community may be facing in terms of services we may need, and the game plan for recovery since [12/14],” he said. Mr Kortze said that absent those unknowns, the referendum would have presented more of a straightforward budget containing a requested increase.
But when factoring all the possible resources needed post-12/14, and the fact that numerous grants to help offset related taxpayer expenses have not been applied for or delivered yet, the amount to budget was “hard to figure out.” Therefore, he said his board proposed a spending plan that “errs on the side of caution.”
“All these numbers can and will probably change. But it’s important that we have the resources in place,” he said. “We still don’t know the status of grants [in process].”
Council Chairman Capeci said he was in the minority voting against the overall proposal, but hopes that the opportunity for voters to weigh in on the town and school proposals separately, with the added opportunity to advise the council through ballot questions, will enhance turnout beyond the ten to 15 percent range typically represented in previous years.
“I voted against the budget because I thought it was a bit too much in this economic environment,” he said. “But I’m not telling people to vote No; I encourage people to vote their conscience and to answer the questions so the council has some feedback should either or both measures fail.”
Further complicating this year’s budget picture is the expected shift in the mill rate because of the recent state-mandated property revaluation, compounded by a roughly 25–30 percent drop in real estate market values.
Finance Director Tait said that property owners may calculate their expected local tax increase in dollars by using an online tool available through the Assessor’s page on the town website, www.newtown-ct.gov.
“In a static year, if the budget goes up five percent, taxes go up five percent,” Mr Tait said, “but in a reval year, it’s fluid for every property owner.”
Despite the revaluation, Mr Tait said about 19 percent will see an increase matching the requested budget increase or less, with about 57 percent experiencing no increase. And as a result of the reval, about 24 percent of residential homeowners will bear a larger tax burden.
“We revaluate every five years by state mandate to be sure all homeowners are paying a fair share,” the finance director said. “When there is a market value shift, we also have to adjust accordingly. This is statewide, not just in Newtown.”
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 real estate or motor vehicles on the 2012 grand list for the Town of Newtown is qualified to vote at the referendum.
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. Since there are specific criteria for absentee voting, questions about absentee voting can be directed to the town clerk’s office at 203-270-4210.