New London — A petition submitted to the city clerk last week has enough signatures to force the City Council to either repeal its vote on the $42.3 million general-government budget or send the measure to voters at a referendum.
Assistant City Clerk Dawn Currier confirmed the certification of the petition Wednesday afternoon and said the stack of signed petitions was 2 inches thick.
The City Council will review the petition certification form at Monday's meeting and will also likely set a referendum date, said council President Michael Passero on Wednesday.
"It's been a real debate in the budget process between people advocating for higher taxes and preservation of services and people who are advocating for lower taxes," Passero said. "The only way to know the will of the people is ... for people to vote at the polls. It's a debate that we've been hearing from both sides."
The petition, which the city clerk received on July 2 and certified Monday, has more than 784 signatures, 644 of which were accepted. It also calls for a repeal of the tax rate, which was set at 27.22 mills, a 7.5 percent increase.
"Through consolidation and other cost-savings measures, the administration and City Council could do better, and we ask them to look at all the facts and evaluate them and make another try at it," said Gordon Videll, a resident who helped circulate the petition. "We are living in a town where taxes are going up, services are down and schools are nearly unusable, and we need to take a hard look at spending and look at long-term cost savings decisions."
The $83 million city budget includes $42.3 million in general-government spending and $40.6 million for education. But the petition will force a referendum only on the general-government portion of the budget.
"This budget represents a rock bottom funding level for the provision of basic city services," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said in a statement Wednesday. "Any further cuts could have catastrophic consequences for the city and I will do all I can to defend this budget to city taxpayers."
Videll, a local attorney, said a smaller tax increase "would be far more palatable to the public."
"Everything has to be done with transparency and cost savings in the future as the main goals," Videll said. "I don't think that anything more than 5 percent will be approved in a referendum."
Last month, the City Council unanimously overrode the mayor's veto of the budget but was split on motions to move money around within the budget to save the jobs of five employees whom Finizio had hired since becoming mayor in December.
The council voted 5-2 to transfer $429,000, mostly from the fire department budget, to other departments to fund the positions of deputy police chief, assistant city clerk, director of development and planning, the mayor's office administrator and the director of risk management.
Those positions had been eliminated by the council after the mayor announced 35 public safety layoffs. Still pending are the layoffs of 25 firefighters, whose new contract has yet to be ratified by the council. The council is expected to revisit the contract during Monday's meeting.
Passero, who likened the public budget debate to last year's vote on the potential sale of Riverside Park, said his understanding was that a referendum could not be held on the same ballot as that of the Aug. 14 state primary. The earliest date for a vote would likely be early September, Passero said.
"I think we've pared the budget to the bare minimum and unfortunately, it results in a 7.5 percent tax increase," Passero said. "I don't think anyone on the council wanted that, but we got to the point where we couldn't cut back on more services. If they want (further cutbacks), we'll find out at referendum. Otherwise, we'll stomach the tax increase. I think it's going to be a good healthy process to go through."