Newtown voters have been invited to the polls on April 22 to commit themselves to $111 million in expenditures and another round of property tax bills for 2014-15. While overall spending in the proposed budget does inch up by slightly less than one percent, the accompanying tax rate does not increase at all, thanks to growth in the grand list, supplemental motor vehicle taxes, and various unanticipated grants and payments from the state. This reprieve from Newtown’s long legacy of annual tax increases, however, is not just happenstance or serendipity, like a mild winter or a found fiver in a forgotten pair of pants. It is the result of unprecedented teamwork by the town’s budget-making Boards of Education, Selectmen, and Finance, and the Legislative Council.
Ironically, the town’s switch to a split system of budget voting — deciding separately on school and town budgets — has fostered greater cooperation between the two discrete systems of service that make up our local government, not less as many predicted. With an early start on the budget process and greater transparency and sharing of financial data, elected representatives on the various budgetmaking boards have shown a greater awareness of the challenges and opportunities not just in their own bailiwicks, but across the community’s entire financial landscape. That awareness has helped break down whatever residual boundaries remained of the school/town fiscal fiefdoms that drove the contention that used to contort the budgetmaking process in Newtown. Let us hope what we are seeing this year is the evolution of our political maturity rather than an anomaly.
There is a downside, however, to this hopeful trend of cooperation and consensus. All this good feeling tends to make democracy drowsy. Nothing drives people to the polls like anger and outrage. Citizens rise to alarms. Without all the noise and clamor, sadly, voters tend to turn to whatever other pressing concerns might arise on a typical Tuesday in April, maybe just checking NewtownBee.com on Wednesday morning for the good news on the budget vote they missed. Unfortunately, that scenario opens the door to the only way an overwhelmingly popular proposal can be defeated. Small minorities can prevail only when no one else shows up.
The proposed 2014-15 budget is a winner. It includes funds for much-needed road repair, school security, and tax relief for senior citizens struggling on fixed incomes, all without raising taxes. It is not, however, a sure winner. That depends entirely on a motivated electorate that refuses to treat April 22 like just another Tuesday in April. The polls will be open from 6 am to 8 pm at the Newtown Middle School on Queen Street.