N. Branford may weigh new budget process

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
June 2, 2008

NORTH BRANFORD — Town officials are considering revising the budget referendum process, after seeing voter turnout of just 4 percent last month.

At the Town Council’s regular meeting last week, members discussed the outcome of the referendum and the low voter turnout. The budget failed by a margin of 76 percent to 24 percent, but not enough people cast ballots for the vote to be binding.

The council approved the $44 million budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year, setting the tax rate at 24.95 mills.

In 2004, the town approved a charter revision that moved away from the traditional town meeting system to a budget referendum. At the town meeting, voters gathered at a local school to review the budget line by line.

The Charter Revision Commission developed a budget referendum that is nonbinding if less than 15 percent of registered voters participate.

In 2006, the referendum saw a turnout of 16.3 percent, but in 2005 and 2007, turnout was below 10 percent. This year, 377 of approximately 8,500 registered voters, or 4 percent, voted.

At last week’s meeting, several Town Council members said they think the budget referendum is not working, and the council should look into establishing a new Charter Revision Commission to review the process.

“I personally feel that the referendum needs to be revisited as a mechanism for the citizens to have a comment on the budget,” Councilman Joseph Faughnan said this week.

Some residents at the meeting said that they felt the town did not publicize the referendum enough, potentially leading to the low turnout.

Following the vote, Mayor Michael Doody said he believes the turnout could be indicative of general satisfaction with the budget, which is a 5 percent increase from the 2007-08 fiscal package.

At the council meeting, Town Finance Director Anthony Esposito said that the referendum costs about $5,000 for the day of voting and another $4,000 for legally required advertisements in local newspapers.

Faughnan said he does not think that spending almost $10,000 for the referendum is the “fiscally responsible thing to do.”

He added that he plans to bring up the topic of charter revision again at a future Town Council meeting.

“I’m not suggesting that this is the only thing that needs to be considered, but I frankly feel that it is something that does need consideration,” he said.

Councilman Andrew Bozzuto said that some council members have been discussing some “procedural things” for a possible charter revision, including the budget referendum.

“We didn’t have a lot of input, unfortunately, from the community prior to this budget referendum, and we still don’t have, unfortunately, a large turnout even with the budget referendum,” Bozzuto said.

“I only wish that there was more participation from the tax base in town because we truly do want to make it better on a grand scale for everyone.”

Bozzuto and Faughnan expressed interest in returning to the town meeting system, or exploring other ways of allowing voters to review the budget.

State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, was a member of the Town Council and served on the last Charter Revision Commission.

He said commission members decided to change the town meeting system because it had become unworkable.

One year, he said, more than 800 people showed up for the meeting. Some were turned away, and the process took more than three hours.

At other meetings, however, only about 150 residents participated, he said.

“The concern was that the town population increased to a size where we didn’t have a venue to accommodate a town meeting,” Candelora said.

“Most towns are now using a budget referendum, and so we looked at that style because, number one, it’s convenient because people can vote throughout the entire day, rather than at a particular meeting, and two, it allows for us to be able to accommodate the numbers and basically every vote.”

Candelora said that, with the low turnout for the referendum the town has been seeing, he thinks it makes sense to look at revising the charter again.

“While we’re seeing that we’re not meeting the 15 percent threshold, we’re still seeing larger numbers of people come out with a referendum than a town meeting,” he said.

“I think probably the issue that we would have to take a look at is that threshold of 15 percent and whether that needs to be lowered, because obviously those people who are voting, their voices need to be heard.”

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