It is not uncommon for people working in a newspaper office to hear themselves described by others as having their fingers on the pulse of the town. But from where we sit, the business of community assessment and diagnosis is not as simple as that. Newtown’s lifeblood flows from myriad hearts beating, at times, in cacophonous syncopation. And rarely is it more difficult to discern what the heart of the town is telling us than in the wake of a failed budget referendum.
Fortunately, this year Newtown’s newly revised charter has provided a couple of devices for more accurately interpreting the results of the budget vote, which this week proved quite useful to the Legislative Council as it pared the spending proposals of the town and the school district. The new split vote on the two sides of the budget, along with accompanying advisory questions, has enabled the council to calibrate its response to the voters to address both the motive and the degree of their opposition to the spending plans. The message on April 23 was that a projected 5.24 percent increase in property taxes is too high, both town and school spending needs to be trimmed, and that antipathy to the proposed school budget is significantly greater than to the town budget.
The council’s response this week took each component of that message into account, yet despite the certainty of numbers counted at the polls, the politics of getting a budget passed are not an entirely quantitative exercise. It depends on whether the same voters show up at the next referendum, tentatively scheduled for May 14. It also depends, in part, not just on what voters have told the budgetmakers, but on what the budgetmakers tell the voters.
Like any high-ticket item consumers consider, a municipal budget is not only about the bottom line; there are components, features, and clear benefits to be considered. Both school and town officials need to help voters understand both the costs and the benefits of their budget proposals. Explain the correlation of staffing levels and class sizes. Explain the economies of timely maintenance programs. Explain, with examples, that every expenditure is not wasteful and every cut is not prudent.
If any town has learned the lessons of cost and value, Newtown has, and the value of this town should quicken the pulse of anyone who has taken the time examine its sense of purpose and character. The bottom line, as we learn anew each day, is that what is gained has everything to do with what is given.