Published September 16. 2012 4:00AM
New London - The atmosphere and attire were more brunch than politics, but the members of the newly formed Unite New London PAC were all business when they gathered at Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's home Saturday morning.
Tom Murphy is chairman of Unite New London - a group of about 30 or so volunteers and three officers who came together solely to convince taxpayers to vote "yes" on the city's budget, which goes to referendum Tuesday.
They're mostly taxpayers, Murphy said, ranging in age from 20-somethings to seniors - property owners unaffiliated with the city and nonpartisan in their mission.
"We just came together to make sure we get the word out, get the story out," Murphy said. "It's totally organic."
At issue Tuesday is the city's $42.3 million general government budget and the 27.22 mills needed to fund the spending plan. The grassroots group "Looking Out For Taxpayers," which was instrumental in getting the 644 signatures needed to force the referendum, has been putting up "NO" signs around the city, and the Republican Town Committee last week passed a resolution urging its members to reject the budget, in part because the city's finances seem to be in disarray and, they say, the budget available to the public lacks details on how money will be spent.
But Finizio said in an interview last week that the budget is "bare bones," and more cuts could mean every-other-week garbage collection, closing the senior center, layoffs in the mayor's office and public works, and reduced funding for youth affairs, the public library and contributions to nonprofits, all of which and more are listed under "what's at stake" on the PAC's green flyer.
The 7.5 percent tax increase is due to years of overestimating revenues and under-budgeting departments, he said.
Unite New London is a small-scale operation, cobbled together quickly at the beginning of September in light of the forced referendum. Its budget is less than $2,000, and Saturday, its materials packaged into folders and onto clipboards distributed among teams of two - maps, voter registration cards, thick, stapled paper packets of active voters' names - the "walk list" - with the goal of canvassing at least those in town most likely to vote.
Finizio, clad in a green "I 'Whale Tail' NL" T-shirt and jeans, his brown leather shoes the only vestige of his office, strategized with fellow PAC members in his dining room. He said they were hoping to hit one in five voters over the course the day.
"We want to have a presence everywhere in the city and make sure people have a chance to talk to us," he said. "In a referendum like this, it's important to hear from the people who are going to be affected."
Murphy and Laura Natusch, the PAC's deputy treasurer, took a 2nd-District assignment. As they drove down Ocean Avenue away from Finizio's house, Murphy honked, waving at fellow volunteers who clutched clipboards as they took to the sidewalk.
Their first stop - a house on Plant Street - was promising. Andrew Aspinwall seemed happy to talk Natusch and Murphy in circles around his city gripes - unregistered cars, overworked teachers and crowded classrooms, and the issue du jour: what he pays in property taxes.
"I feel your pain," Murphy told him.
But it seemed Aspinwall just wanted to chat and relay his concerns for his city; he's voting yes.
"As long as everybody sticks to the budget," he warned.
"It's nice to meet someone who's really informed," Murphy told him, turning around and calling out in farewell, "We love our city!"
"Yes we do!" Aspinwall yelled back.
They would hit twice as many locked front doors and darkened windows as live people over the course of the next hour and a half, trying to close the gap with passersby, gravitating toward those doors left invitingly ajar. Several gardeners and one weekend home-improver with a bucket of whitewash on his porch were prime targets.
Ambling down Plant Street toward the water, Murphy and Natusch stopped occasionally to compare their lists, read aloud house numbers, and once to scratch behind the ears of a handsome gray cat in a turquoise collar.
"You look busy, but," Murphy said as introduction to a woman in hot-pink sneakers and a ponytail, head ducked under the hood of her car. He managed to hand her a flyer before her dismissal.
"Any questions?" they asked.
"I'm good, thanks," she said.
A beagle named Maxine harnessed to a set of hind-leg wheels caught their attention. As they waved and cooed, her owner called out, "What are you guys doing?"
"I'm happy you asked," Murphy said, crossing the street with grand strides. "Are you a New Londoner?" And, upon affirmation, simply, "We hope you'll vote yes for the budget."
"I will!" Then, "Good luck!"
They waited patiently at unanswered doors, delicately rolling up flyers and tucking them into door handles, and weathering the inevitable rejection. There was the hasty "No time, sorry," and the "Oh yeah, we know." One woman stood firmly behind her screen door, cracking it open only begrudgingly to oblige the flyer offer.
"I know what I'm voting," she said with a warning tone.
Patricia Pianka, born and raised in New London, came to the door of her Pequot Avenue home in a purple sweater with black polka dots.
Murphy began with the usual introduction - just private citizens, trying to get the vote out - but Pianka had her answer ready.
"I'm sorry, we're 'no' people," she said.
But before they left, she had a few questions - mostly to do with the referendum questions themselves.
"That's a trick question," Pianka said of the fact that there are two items - the tax increase and the government operating budget itself.
Murphy offered to get back to her - but did she prefer phone or email?
"I consider computers a step backwards," she said.
Natusch brought the friendly chat to a close.
"It's nice to know that even though we're on opposite sides, it doesn't have to be a hostile conversation," she said.
It was all for a cause they insisted was worthy of an entire day's door-knocking and strolling.
"If we can't pass this, we're in for some rough times," Murphy said.