'Don't care' wins NL budget referendum

It is hard to be a truly "strong mayor" when you can't control the purse strings.

While New London voters opted in 2010 to switch from a city manager-council system to a government with an elected mayor as its chief executive, it left in place a vestige of small-town New England governance - the ability of voters to challenge the budget at referendum through a petition drive.

Having a so-called strong mayor and the ability to reject the budget at popular vote is an odd mix. There is no more important policy document than the municipal budget. In the traditional strong-mayor model the mayor uses the budget to set his or her agenda. The check on that power is the council, meaning the mayor only has to persuade a majority of council members.

If the voters are not happy with those priorities and how they work out, if the taxes are too high and/or the services too low, if the budget fails to provide the foundation to promote economic growth in the city, voters can oust the mayor come next election. But until then the mayor, working with the council, gets to set fiscal policy.

That is how I think it should work and apparently so too does New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio.

"We are a republic, not a pure democracy; I believe in the representative form of government. Elect people, give them the chance to do the job, if you don't like what they've done, vote them out," Finizio told me during a recent meeting with the editorial board. "With a budget referendum, you're asking people to approve a higher tax on themselves. Who wants to do that, no matter how justified it may be?"

Finizio appeared pessimistic at the editorial board meeting about the prospects of passage. The mayor was hardly surprised, then, when city voters last Tuesday rejected the $42.3 million general government budget that called for boosting property taxes 7.5 percent. It would have been the first tax increase in five years. The council is now at work trying to trim the tax increase to 5 percent.

While from an academic, political-science perspective, Finizio thinks a mayor and council should be able to set fiscal policy without facing the prospect of annual referendum challenges, he is also practical enough to know the power of referendum is held dear by many, that it is not going to change and he has no interest in trying to change it.

"This is the system, I recognize that and respect it and we will work within it," he said.

But do these referendum votes really reflect the will of the people? The vote rejecting the New London budget was 1,436 to 1,007, but only about 20 percent of registered voters participated, and that's actually a high number for such votes. Break it down and it comes out likes this: about 12 percent felt the budget was too high, 8 percent were satisfied, and 80 percent didn't care enough to vote. It sounds like didn't care wins. But the city can only count the votes that are cast.

It is a system weighted in favor of defeat, because those motivated against something are more likely to turn out. A fiscal conservative will argue this is a good thing, making it hard to increase the size and cost of municipal government and imposing prudency on the elected. But it also can leave a city hamstrung, never able to invest in itself and give that investment time to work. It discourages practical long-term fiscal planning. The goal becomes getting through one more budget cycle. And so will New London once again.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.


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