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New London — The questions of whether the city should repeal three ordinances — the authorization of $1.1 million in bonding, and the general government and education budgets for fiscal year 2015 — will be in the hands of voters at the November election.
On Monday night, the City Council struck down motions to reconsider or repeal the ordinances, each of which was the subject of a referendum petition that garnered at least 298 verified signatures.
By default, the referendum questions go before voters at the next municipal election — Nov. 4. But, with at least five favorable votes, the City Council can schedule a special election for the referendums.
Councilor Martin T. Olsen proposed holding a special election for the referendum questions on Aug. 26, but his motions received just three votes.
“It’s critically important that we have an early vote on our budget. I think it’s terribly unfair to wait this late into the fiscal year, nearly halfway into the fiscal year, to determine whether we have a budget or not,” said Councilor Michael Passero, who supported Olsen’s motions. “We should give the citizens a right to vote at the earliest opportunity.”
Councilor Michael J. Tranchida also supported a vote sooner than November.
In May, the City Council approved a general government budget of $44,030,106 and an education budget of $41,255,706. In total, the city’s $85.3 million budget will necessitate a tax rate of 38 mills, an increase of 10.5 mills.
Part of the urgency in getting the matters to a vote has to do with a provision in the city charter that stipulates that the city government cannot spend more than 25 percent of the previous year’s budget amount until a new budget becomes effective, according to Law Director Jeffrey T. Londregan.
“We’ve opined in the past that the city cannot have effectively a government shutdown so that once the 25 percent threshold is exceeded, the administration and the city can continue to spend based upon the budget that was subject of the referendum,” Londregan said.
Once the city spends more than 25 percent of the budget, it cannot be challenged by voters at referendum.
Londregan said the 25 percent provision “has been consistently an issue over the last several years at budget time.” Indeed, in 2003 and 2007, the cap quashed attempts by voters to take the city budget to referendum by petition.
By putting the referendums off to November — when more than a third of the fiscal year has passed — threatens the validity of the vote, some councilors argued.
“That’s cutting it too close to the 25 percent threshold, and there is the distinct possibility, and it has happened before, that people’s right to petition their government would be denied, and I think that is inherently wrong,” Olsen said.
Some of the councilors who opposed holding a special election for the referendum questions said they were in favor of having the questions on the November ballot in hopes of giving the greatest number of residents the chance to have a say on the matters.
“If we’re going to say that this is what the people want, we need to get it done when the majority of the people come out to vote, and that’s in November,” Councilor Erica Richardson said. “In addition, there would be no extra cost to the city at that point to have it in November, so I think it’s the most prudent thing to do.”
The size of the November ballot may grow still. Many of the same people who circulated referendum petitions for the bonding and budgets — including many members of activist group Looking Out for Taxpayers — have begun to gather signatures to bring the council’s recent authorization of $196 million in bonding to fund a school construction project to referendum.