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NL's deja vote

Published July 03. 2013 4:00AM

So once again New London's general government and education budgets head for referendum. On Aug. 6 - a midsummer date that likely assures a poor turnout - the vote will take place to approve or reject the budgets and tax rates for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Then, on Election Day Nov. 5, citizens will vote whether to approve or reject the general government budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Oh, what a mess this process has become.

As to the current fiscal year, certainly no one likes to pay higher taxes, but it is hard to make the case that the 0.9 mill-rate increase approved by the City Council is excessive. On a home assessed at $150,000 that amounts to a $135 annual tax increase.

The $41.6 million general government budget is up about $300,000, while education expenditures are up $600,000 after several years of flat funding.

Increases of that size are not even enough to account for inflationary costs or contractual pay and benefit obligations, and in fact staffing levels have gone down in recent years in the city. Some citizens are complaining they are already too low when it comes to police coverage and public works maintenance. The city needs to start rebuilding its Fund Balance Reserve. Exhausted by deficit spending in the closing years of the former city manager system, it is a necessary cushion should the city confront unexpected expenses or loss in revenue.

But the group, Looking out for Taxpayers (LOT), is not satisfied and presented the 680-signature petition to the City Council challenging the budgets and tax increase. Council members could have reduced the budget to avoid a referendum vote. Having decided Monday not to do so, they should rally to its support and make the case for why voters should approve it.

Budget opponents benefit from disinterest. Those not troubled by the tax increase often stay home. The opponents, worked up and involved, vote.

As for the November vote, it is "Exhibit A" that the charter's referendum rules need amending. When last year citizens petitioned the 2012-2013 general government budget to a referendum for a second time, the council could not reach a consensus on what to do. So the referendum was delayed until this coming November, more than four months after the end of the fiscal year.

What happens if voters "reject" a budget after the city has spent the money and closed the books? No one knows.

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