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If there has ever been a year for Newtown taxpayers to put their faith in the officials they have elected or hired to shepherd the town and school district — this is it.
Local taxpayers can affirm that faith by turning out to vote in the annual budget referendum between 6 am and 8 pm at Newtown Middle School on Queen Street on Tuesday, April 25; by filing an absentee ballot at a special Saturday voting session in the Town Clerk’s Office in the Municipal Center at Fairfield Hills, April 22, from 9 am to noon; or ensuring any absentee ballots are returned to Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia Halstead before the referendum polls close.
And if faith is not enough, residents and Newtown Bee readers are invited to see and hear eight of those officials revealing their take on the spending plan — including brand-new capital authorization questions on this year’s budget ballot — in face-to-face videos taped for the newspaper’s YouTube channel. The videos include remarks by First Selectman Pat Llodra, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, Board of Finance Chairman John Godin, Legislative Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob, and Board of Education Chairman Keith Alexander.
Public Works Director Fred Hurley also participated talking about the requested $1 million capital road authorization; Police Chief James Viadero along with Police Commissioners Joel Faxon and Dan Rosenthal weigh in on the $300,000 request to begin design phase work on a new police headquarters; while Senior Center Director Marilyn Place and Commission on Aging Chair Anna Wiedemann and member George Guidera offer thoughts on the $3 million request to complete construction on a new and expanded senior center. (All of the videos are also available below this story to watch.)
Pursuant to state law, any person who is a registered voter in the Town of Newtown or who is a US citizen assessed for at least $1,000 for real estate or motor vehicles on the 2016 grand list for the Town of Newtown is qualified to vote at the referendum.
After initial presentations along with review and reductions made by the Board of Finance, the Legislative Council unanimously endorsed a proposed spending plan that, if approved, will fund a municipal budget request of $40,399,575, representing a three-tenths of a percent (-0.3 percent) reduction from the current year, and a $72,995,957 school district request representing a nine-tenths of a percent (-0.9 percent) reduction from the current year.
The municipal budget request includes planned spending for town operations, as well as debt service costs for capital bonding that includes all school district projects.
The total budget request for the 2017-18 fiscal year, if approved, will be $113,395,532, representing a seven-tenths of a percent (-0.7 percent) reduction from the current year that would generate a mill rate of 33.87 — an increase of 0.82 percent. A mill represents one dollar for every $1,000 in taxable property.
As in past years, budget voters will be asked to endorse or reject the municipal and education spending requests separately on a split ballot with the following language:
*Shall the sum of $40,399,575 be appropriated for the Board of Selectmen for the fiscal year?
*Shall the sum of $72,995,957 be appropriated for the Board of Education for the fiscal year?
As a result of a 2016 charter revision, ballot language on advisory questions was modified from previous versions, and asks voters:
*If the proposed sum of $40,399,575 for the Board of Selectmen is not approved, should the revised budget be higher?” Yes ___ No ___
*If the proposed sum of $72,995,957 for the Board of Education is not approved, should the revised budget be higher?” Yes ___ No ___
That charter revision also eliminated the town meeting for authorizing capital spending, so voters will be responsible for individually accepting or rejecting a half-dozen capital authorizations on the ballot.
While that charter revision increased the amount that the council could approve for each project up to $1.5 million, it also capped the total amount of capital spending the council could authorize. Since the council can only approve a total of 1 mill, or roughly $3 million in capital projects, any remaining requests also go to taxpayers at referendum.
After previous deliberation and a special appropriation process that involved review by the Boards of Selectmen and Finance, the council authorized moving a $1.8 million request for middle school improvements and a $3 million request for a new senior center to the ballot, along with a $750,000 request for the final phase of high school auditorium improvements; $850,000 for the Hawley School’s roof replacement; $1 million for capital road spending; and a $300,000 request to begin the design phase for a new police headquarters to voters for consideration.
In talking with officials, several key points about this year’s budget vote have risen to the forefront. Concerns about incomplete or outright misinformation being shared either in social circles or on social networks, some officials feel, is compounding the confusion.
Among key points are:
*The budget ballot has two sides, with questions on both sides. Voters are reminded to consider questions on both sides of the ballot.
*Voting No on any or all capital request questions will not produce a reduction in the 2017-18 spending plan.
*Capital questions appear on the ballot because following last year’s proposed charter revision, a significant majority of Newtown voters supported the elimination of town meetings, which were previously used to authorize large capital expenditures.
*There are no funding requests on this budget ballot that affect the planned development of a community center. That project is happening at Fairfield Hills, and any taxpayer funding for that project has already been endorsed in a previous referendum.
*The $3 million request for developing a new senior center would only intersect with the community center development if that senior center funding is approved on this year’s budget ballot, and if officials eventually determine it will be either attached to; located adjacent to; or connected in some way to the already approved community center.
*The $300,000 request for design phase funding for a new police station does not trigger or in any way authorize further construction spending for that project unless that construction spending is approved by taxpayers on a future budget ballot.
*The $750,000 request for the high school auditorium completion phase would permit various sound, lighting, and staging infrastructure to be installed that would make the facility usable for cultural arts performances and other events requiring that infrastructure, versus paying to rent or lease it on a short- or long-term basis for school and/or civic activities.
*This year’s spending request on the ballot is reduced in all areas encompassing the school district, town services, and borrowing. The increase in the tax rate is a result in an anticipated $3 million reduction in town revenue from the state that outweighs the local reduction in spending.
*A $900,000 increase in revenue generated by commercial development that appears on the grand list, which would normally reduce taxes, is being used to mitigate the anticipated $3 million in reduced state aid.
Most officials agree that the current run-up to the budget vote was among if not the most challenging in decades, since this year more than ever there is no clear indication from Hartford about how much the town will lose in state funding come July 1 — if any. If all of the reductions and changes in funding to Newtown that were proposed by Governor Dannel Malloy were to happen, Newtown property owners could face as much as $7 million in added taxation.
Among many local officials appearing at the capitol on behalf of local taxpayers, as well as others who have maintained communications with state officials, the majority believe that such draconian measures would not all come to fruition. But they also believe that some will, which resulting in elected officials collaborating and agreeing on a best guess scenario that resulted in that $3 million accommodation in the local budget.
“I think the majority of the council felt that they tried to strike a balance between worst case scenario and best case scenario,” council Chair Mary Ann Jacob said. “And at the same time be respectful of our education funding.”
In the event the $3 million projection is wrong, and the town receives more state funding than estimated, a resolution has already been put in place that would begin in prioritized fashion to complete or fund spending requests and services that were reduced late in the budget development process. That list includes both town and school projects or services.
The Newtown Bee, as in years past, included in its April 21 print edition for reader review copies of the actual budget ballot that taxpayers will be asked to consider on April 25.