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Should tally count when so few vote?

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published August 18. 2013 4:00AM

When on Aug. 6 New London voters rejected the city government and education budgets, along with the proposed tax rate increase of 0.9 mills, a spokesman for Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio suggested no clear message was sent. The spokesman, Zak Leavy, said the abysmally small turnout - about 10 percent of registered voters - provided no mandate for cutting the budget. And the mayor issued a statement that he was holding firm to his view "that further reductions in the budget are not possible."

Some of Finizo's critics found that position to be typically arrogant. But I dare say many of the good people of North Branford and Cheshire would agree his honor made a valid point. You see, those two towns also allow budget referendums, but if the turnout is particularly low "the budget shall be deemed adopted," even if a majority of those voting rejected it.

It is an approach solidly grounded in logic. If the vast majority of people do not show up at the polls, doesn't that suggest the vast majority of the people are not all worked up about the budget proposal and the tax rate? And if the vast majority of people are not upset with the budget - in other words satisfied or, at least, dispassionate - then why should the council go hacking away at spending and services?

In Cheshire the budget is "deemed adopted" if fewer than 20 percent of the registered voters show up, while in North Branford the threshold is 15 percent. In May in North Branford those voting rejected the $48.7 million budget with its 4.7 percent tax increase by a 642-128 margin, a landslide. Didn't count though, because the turnout was 8.6 percent, far short of the 15 percent required - budget adopted!

I think this is a good rule. It provides the opportunity for the citizens to reject a budget if there is a large groundswell of opposition to a spending and taxation proposal (or lack of spending for certain services, for that matter). But having a threshold to validate the results prevents a small group from having a disproportionate influence on fiscal policy.

Now the argument can be made that those who don't bother to vote have nothing to complain about and should expect to live with the consequences of their failure to carry out their civic duty. But the reality is people are busy. Most are not thinking about elections in early August. And it will always be the case that people will be more motivated to get out and vote against budgets and tax increases than for them.

New London's process for challenging and voting on the budget is particularly illogical. The votes typically come after the start of the fiscal year, July 1. Voters can approve the city and education budgets, but reject the tax increase necessary to support those budgets. Also, the city government is not supposed to spend more than 25 percent of the budget until receiving referendum approval, but it is not practical to shut down city government, so the requirement goes ignored. And if the council fails to set a date for the vote, it automatically goes to the next regular election. Which is why on Nov. 5, 2013 city residents will vote on the budget for the fiscal year that ended this past June 30.

As for lousy turnouts, New London has plenty of company. Ledyard, Old Saybrook and Salem all approved budgets with turnouts of less than 10 percent. The high water mark was Stonington, where 18 percent of voters showed up to approve the fiscal plan there.

For a right that the citizenry supposedly holds dear - direct control of the purse strings - an awful lot of people fail to exercise it.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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