Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Petition forces Vernon budget referendum

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

VERNON — A petition forcing a budget referendum was filed with the town clerk’s office on Monday, and as such, the scheduled voice vote on the $75.13 million spending package at tonight’s annual town meeting will not be taken.

It’s become tradition, it seems, to decide Vernon’s budget by referendum. In the last four years it has taken four ballot votes, at a cost of roughly $6,000 each, to adopt a fiscal plan.

It was a custom Mayor Jason L. McCoy was hoping to avoid. McCoy has said that since elected in November he has worked diligently to keep costs down and the spending increase to a tolerable 3 percent — the so called magic number needed to get support from the Vernon Taxpayer Association.

James Hoover, president of the organization, told council members that the proposed budget, which reflects a total spending increase of $2.34 million, or 3.22 percent more than this year’s $72.79 million budget, was acceptable and that he wouldn’t push for a referendum vote this year.

Former Republican mayor and one-time leader of the taxpayer group, Joseph Grabinski, however, collected more than 200 signatures and presented them to the town clerk Monday.

At least six people helped with the collection, said Grabinski, who is pushing for a referendum for philosophical reasons.

The town’s fiscal plan should be decided by the electorate in a daylong paper ballot rather than a voice vote made by a select few able to a attend an evening meeting, he said.

“I want the people to have a chance to decide this, and I feel it’s up to the elected officials to sell it,” Grabinski said. “The most important thing a town does is pass a budget, but you can’t get 3,000 people in that auditorium — we get only about 100, and that’s not fair. During an election we get at least 50 percent of active voters turning out.”

Grabinski’s numbers are somewhat high. In the mayoral election last fall, 42.4 percent of the town’s eligible voters turned out. And at last year’s referendum votes, voter turnout hovered at about 22 percent.

As to the expense, the cost “is less than 0.01 percent of the budget and less than the bonus that the school superintendent will get this year,” Grabinski added. The superintendent is scheduled for a 3 percent raise in June, which woule be approximately $3,500.

Meanwhile at Town Hall, the unexpected petition caused a flurry of activity late Monday while McCoy and town staff investigated the legal legitimacy of a budget referendum.

Some argue that the Town Charter — which states that the electors can approve or reject any ordinance or measure passed by the Town Council except an ordinance that levies taxes or fixes the tax rate — supercedes state statues allowing for a budget vote.

Former Town Attorny John Casey wrote an opinion to that effect in the late 1990s, but more recently, former Town Attorney Martin Burke and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, concluded in their own analysis that a petition forcing a budget referendum was, in fact, legal.

Current Town Attorney Hal Cummings, meanwhile, says another inquiry is likely needed, but for this year, the town should surrender and hold a referendum vote.

Others say that charter revision is long overdue as it was last revamped in the early 1990s.

McCoy, meanwhile, did not return calls seeking comment this morning

While a vote won’t be taken on the proposed budget at tonight’s annual town meeting, the public will be allowed to speak on it. Also, the Town Council will set a date for the referendum vote.

Tonight’s meeting is scheduled for 7 in the Vernon Center Middle School auditorium, 777 Hartford Turnpike.

The 2008-09 budget proposal includes general government spending of $25.08 million, an increase of 2.66 percent over this year’s $24.43 million, and a school spending increase of 2.78 percent, to $45.37 million up from this year’s $44.15 million.

Debt service and capital improvement spending grew by 11 percent, to $4.67 million from this year’s $4.20 million.

Roughly one-third of the total budget increase is to cover debt service on bonded projects, while 85.2 percent of the school budget is dedicated to fixed or contracted costs that can’t be changed.

Total student enrollment in Vernon as of Feb. 1 is 3,648 students, down from two years ago when it stood at 3,936 students.

The tax rate needed to fund the proposed budget is 30.28 mills, but because Vernon is in the second year of a phase-in of the 2007 revaluation, it’s been difficult to determine the impact on individual tax bills.

But real estate owners can find out approximately how much they’ll owe under the proposed budget by typing in their last name or address in the new tax calculator on the town Web site:

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