New London voters face five questions on Election Day

New London — Voters will be asked Tuesday to answer five municipal ballot questions, including whether to bond $168 million toward the construction of facilities for an all-magnet school district, a plan that officials say would alter the city's future.

"The city is in a position to make a fundamental change in how things have gone down in the city for a lot of years," Finance Director Jeff Smith said. "That we're moving to this all-magnet school district is really a great opportunity to help turn the city around."

Approvals for the general government budget, the education budget and the bonding of $1.1 million to bolster the city's savings account will also be on Tuesday's ballot.

"While these are separate ordinances and separate questions, they are all interdependent and interrelated," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said. "Especially if you are in favor of moving forward with the magnet school plan, it is important not just to vote for that but for all the questions because it makes the magnet plan work and is the best, most affordable option for us."

There is also an urgency to Tuesday's election, the mayor said, because this could be the only chance the city gets to take such a dramatic leap forward.

"This isn't 'vote no and maintain a status quo.' That option does not exist," Finizio said. "We are either moving forward or we are falling desperately behind, and New London cannot afford to do that. We just cannot afford to miss an opportunity this good, but we also cannot afford to see our school system and our city financially devastated if we go in the other direction."

Aside from Question 1, a statewide question that asks voters whether they want to approve an amendment to the Connecticut Constitution to allow early voting, all other questions will appear on the back of the ballot.

Questions 2 and 3

In two separate ballot questions, voters will be asked whether they support the general government and Board of Education budgets the City Council passed in May.

The council approved a general government budget of $44,030,106 and an education budget of $41,255,706 for a total city budget of $85,285,812.

"I respect people's concerns about the budgets, but I think when you look at the numbers, we have cut and cut and cut and cut everything that can be cut," Finizio said. "Every single department of city government has experienced those cuts, every single department in city government is operating with lower staff levels than what any consultant or study would recommend, so we cannot continue in that direction and expect to prosper as a city."

The 2014-15 budget represents an increase of $4,041,352, or 4.97 percent more than the 2013-14 budget, and will necessitate a tax rate of 38 mills, an increase of 10.5 mills.

Because of the recent state-mandated revaluation, not all properties are affected equally by the increased tax rate. According to the mayor, 75 percent of city taxpayers will see their tax bill go down this year because most properties were assessed at a lower value.

Question 4

Question 4 asks voters to weigh in on the City Council's approval of up to $168 million in bonding as part of a school construction plan that would involve renovating New London High School and Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, and constructing a building to house a science, technology, engineering and math middle school at the high school campus.

The state legislature has approved a reimbursement rate of 80 percent for the high school and middle school projects, which would leave the city responsible for about $31 million of the total cost.

"If we vote yes, we are locked in, but this will never be offered again," Finizio said. "If we don't take this step, we face terrible consequences."

The potential consequences include the revocation of New London High School's accreditation, which Finizio said would be "completely devastating." For more than five years, the school has been on probation with the agency that accredits New England secondary schools and has been warned that unless a plan is in place to replace or repair the building, the school will lose its accreditation.

"We can get accreditation a lot cheaper," said William Cornish, a former city councilor who worked with the watchdog group Looking Out for Taxpayers to bring the budgets and bonding ordinances to referendum. "It really comes down to ... we can do things and be living within our means, or we can go for this pie in the sky stuff."

Cornish said he plans to vote "no" on Question 4 because he is not comfortable with the city taking on additional debt. But Smith, the city's finance director, said the debt associated with the construction plan won't begin to come dueuntil current debt is paid off, resulting in a relatively steady level of debt payment over the coming two decades.

"We are able to fit in all this new borrowing into our current debt structure without really having to increase our annual payments," Smith said. "You don't want to, all of a sudden, have this huge debt pile on you in the first couple of years. You want to build it up slowly as older debt comes off the books. That's what we're trying to do here."

According to Smith's financial projections, which are available on the city's website, the cost of the magnet school construction bonding for a city resident paying taxes on an average single family residence would be 45 cents per day for the first 15 years of the 20-year bond.

Question 5

On April 30, the City Council voted to approve the bonding of $1.1 million to add to the city's fund balance, the account that can act like overdraft protection for the city's general fund. Question 5 asks voters whether the council's approval should stand.

By bonding the $1.1 million, city officials said at the time, the city would be able to replace money it took from its fund balance going back about a decade, when capital projects such as roadway improvements ran over budget.

"We have had credit rating agencies tell us in writing that this fund balance replacement plan is the reason the city's credit rating was preserved," Finizio said. "Our credit rating relates directly to how expensive it is going to be to us to bond long-term for the school construction project or other projects."

Earlier this year, when both Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's reaffirmed the city's A+ rating, Fitch warned that "any reversal in this plan could result in negative rating pressure."

Without a healthy fund balance, the city was susceptible to cash flow problems, as happened in April when the city had to request that the state expedite payment of Education Cost Sharing funds in order for the city to meet its $1.7 million biweekly payroll.

Question 6

The final question on the ballot will ask voters to approve a five-year renewal of the Connecticut City and Town Development Act, a state law that allows the city to offer a flexible schedule of tax abatements and other economic development incentives.

The City Council voted unanimously in September to renew the act, and city voters have approved it every five years for the last two decades.

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

 

New London ballot questions

Question 1: "Shall the Constitution of the State be amended to remove restrictions concerning absentee ballots and to permit a person to vote without appearing at a polling place on the day of an election?"

Question 2: "Shall City Ordinance 05-27-14-1, Annual Appropriation Ordinance totaling $44,030,106 for the City Government Fiscal Year 2014-2015, be approved?"

Question 3: "Shall City Ordinance 05-27-14-2, Annual Appropriation Ordinance totaling $41,255,706 for the City of New London's Board of Education Fiscal Year 2014-2015, be approved?"

Question 4: "Shall City Ordinance 06-26-14-1, entitled: 'New London Magnet Schools Pathways Project," appropriating and/or bonding $168,000,000 for evaluating, planning, designing, repairing, renovating, modifying, improving, equipping and constructing (1) a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics middle school, (2) a public service and leadership magnet middle school and high school, and (3) a dual language magnet middle school and high school,' be approved?"

Question 5: "Shall City Ordinance 04-07-14-3, appropriating and/or bonding $1,100,000 for the purpose of evaluating, planning design, construction, repairs and modifications to the city's infrastructure, including the boardwalk, waterfront expansion, city vehicles, roads, drainage, City building and fuel tank be approved?"

Question 6: "Shall the City of New London approve a resolution, renewing for a five year period, the powers granted to the City under the Connecticut City and Town Development Act, as set forth in CGS Sec. 7-480 et. Seq.?"

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