Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Referendum on $75.13 million Vernon budget will be May 3

By Kym Soper
Journal Inquirer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

VERNON — The Town Council set a date Tuesday night for a referendum vote on the proposed $75.13 million budget: May 3 — a Saturday — with polls open only at Center 375 on Hartford Turnpike from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Voting is traditionally held on Tuesdays and rarely occurs on a Saturday.

But council members are hoping that opening the polls on an unconventional weekend day will mean a larger turnout of working families who are likely to support the spending package.

Tuesday’s vote followed a heated annual town meeting at the Vernon Center Middle School where roughly 90 people attended, many angry that a petition filed at the 11th hour Monday had forced the referendum.

Town staff and elected officials were hoping to pass the 2008-09 spending plan at the annual town meeting Tuesday. The package, which reflects an increase of $2.34 million, or 3.22 percent more than the current $72.79 million budget, was acceptable to the Vernon Taxpayers Association.

The new budget would reduce the tax rate from 30.47 mills to 30.28 mills, which takes into account the second year of a phase-in of new revaluation figures.

But a faction led by former mayor Joseph Grabinski gathered over 200 signatures to impose a paper ballot rather than a voice or hand vote Tuesday.

Grabinski, who took quite a bit of heat from the crowd, served as mayor in the late 1990s. He did not attend the meeting, and when reached at home today, said he “had other things to do” and “didn’t think anybody would be interested in what I had to say anyway.”

Many people attending the meeting wanted answers, however.

“I don’t want to be held hostage by a fractured group of malcontents forcing this referendum on us,” resident John Leary said, adding that there has been a lack of constructive input from Grabinski and his followers during the budget workshops.

“Why wait until the last minute to file the petition? Where have you been for the last 11 months and why didn’t you have a referendum when you were mayor?” Leary asked.

Another resident, Richard Clark, called for charter revision “so that we’re not held hostage by 200 signatures — that’s not even one third of the electorate.

“I’m retired, and it’s hard for me, but I don’t want to see our schools and other services go down the drain because it ends up pushing all our property values down,” Clark added. “I think this is shortsighted.”

There have been four referendum votes each in the last four years to pass a budget, but this is the first time since 2002 it has been forced by a petition, Republican Mayor Jason L. McCoy said.

The Town Council sent prior budgets to referendum, said McCoy, who admitted to being blindsided by Grabinski, a member of his own party.

“It would have been nice to know about this ahead of time so we could prepare. It’s an expense we have to deal with,” McCoy said, adding that he had hoped Grabinski and those who had signed the petition “would have come to the meeting and explain why and perhaps even withdraw” their petition.

Only one person spoke against the budget at the meeting, calling for more cuts.

“I commend you for trying to keep costs down, but you won’t be collecting tax money with all the foreclosures that are happening,” Herb Slicer said. “There’s an avalanche coming down the mountain right now, so you better cut your costs.”

Republican Councilman Daniel Anderson said more would have attended had there been no petition, suggesting that voters skipped the annual meeting because the budget vote won’t be taken until the referendum.

And some suggested improper solicitation methods for the petition, saying people were told they couldn’t vote in the November election if they didn’t sign it.

McCoy said he checked the petition and found that it was incomplete — most of the signatories left off required information such as date of birth — effectively making it illegitimate and easily challenged.

He also expressed amazement over some of the people who signed it.

“There were about 80 signatures from the Kelly Road area where those people will see a negative tax increase” under this budget, McCoy said. “You have to wonder why, if your taxes are going down, you’d want to spend $8,100 that could go to snow plowing or other things that could maybe decrease their taxes even more.”

Moderator and Town Attorney Hal Cummings asked the crowd at the end of the meeting to stand if they supported the budget, and nearly all rose.

When he asked those who wanted more budget cuts to stand, fewer than five got to their feet.

“This is a good sign,” Republican Councilman Bill Campbell said afterwards. “I’m hopeful it will only take one vote to get this passed.”

Council members also voted unanimously Tuesday to appropriate $8,100 to finance the referendum.

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