Low turnout dooms borough referendum

Poll workers look through their paperwork while waiting for voters to turn up Tuesday at the Naugatuck Historical Society, where the budget referendum was held.

NAUGATUCK — The consensus of those who came out to vote in Naugatuck’s budget referendum Tuesday was overwhelmingly against the budget. However, not enough voters cast a ballot to make it official.

After the votes were tallied Tuesday night, 1,202 total people voted, only 6.9 percent of registered voters, well under the 15 percent turnout needed to make the referendum count.
Due to the low turnout, the $105.5 million budget will be the borough’s spending plan for this fiscal year.

The budget is a $1.78 million or 1.71 percent increase over last fiscal year. The municipal budget is $45.5 million, a $1.2 million or 2.61 percent increase over the 2010-11 budget. This school budget is $57 million, an increase of $545,000 or 0.97 percent.

The budget increases property taxes by 2.5 percent, or $158 for a home assessed at $200,000.

Borough Controller Wayne McAllister said the second half of this year’s taxes will be sent out as soon as possible. The borough originally sent out bills for taxes equaling half of last year’s mill rate pending the results of the referendum.

Although the budget passed by default, the majority of the 1,202 people who voted did so against it.

“I’m on a very tight budget, so this is very close to my heart,” said Susan Gura, a single mother and small business owner.

She said there wasn’t anything specific she would like to see cut from the budget, but she simply couldn’t afford more taxes. Gura said she was disappointed by the low voter turnout.

“People complain, but they don’t want to be involved,” she said.

A total of 1,200 votes were cast on the municipal budget, 997 people voted no because it was too high, 14 people voted no because it was too low and 189 voted in favor of the budget.

A total of 1,189 total votes were cast on the school budget, 995 people voted no because it was too high, 31 people voted no because it was too low and 163 approved of the school budget.

The Naugatuck Taxpayers in Revolt gathered about 1,400 signatures last month to force the referendum. Those who signed the petition said the budget was too high, but many of them didn’t come out to vote Tuesday.

Alec Wargo, chair of Taxpayers in Revolt, called the turnout was “disheartening.”

“I’m kind of disappointed, not in the results, but the fact that nobody showed up,” he said.

Wargo said he didn’t know why people didn’t come out to vote, but speculated that part of the problem was that it is vacation season. He said the budget is usually adopted in the beginning of May, but this year it wasn’t adopted until May 26. He also said that having the referendum at only one location made it harder for some, especially the elderly, to vote.

Wargo said it is not his group’s responsibility to make people turn out.

“They’ve got to take interest in their own finances,” he said. “We did what we thought was correct and that was we got enough signatures to allow people to vote.”

At least one person was happy with the low turnout. Board of Education Chair David Heller previously said he would not vote and encouraged others not to vote to defeat the referendum through insufficient turnout.

“I think people actually decided not to vote to show support for the budget,” Heller said.

Although no one wants to pay higher taxes, Heller said people want to have the services and educational opportunities to improve the community.

“I’m thrilled with the outcome and very happy that we have an education budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year,” Heller said.

He said the board is excited to move forward and start planning for the new school year without any further cuts.

“We’re going to work very hard to provide all the educational services within our budgetary limit,” Heller said.

He said the budget was well thought out and well prepared.

“I think the finance board worked very hard on putting together a reasonable and very appropriate budget,” Heller said.

Mayor Robert Mezzo said he was surprised by the lower turnout, but wouldn’t speculate as to the cause.

“Each election has its own dynamics and different sets of circumstances, so I try not to read too much into any particular vote,” Mezzo said.

Many town officials expected the budget to be rejected and were already preparing alternative plans. At a recent meeting of the Board of Mayor and Burgesses, board members discussed delaying the purchase of new equipment for the fire department, reasoning they could add it into the budget once it was defeated.

“I think this is the first time under the current system that the referendum failed to garner 15 percent of the vote,” Mezzo said.

Officials said a budget referendum failed in the 1990s when the requirement was 25 percent.

Mezzo said members of the Boards of Burgesses and Finance worked together across party lines to do the right thing for the future of the community.

“If I’m being optimistic, I would like to believe that the majority of residents understand that there are some really good people from both parties that work very hard to craft an honest budget during very difficult times,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said that this year’s budget didn’t occur in a vacuum. Past budgets affected it and it will affect future budgets.

“Our goal is to put this community in a position so in the coming years we operate more efficiently as a government and generate more revenue locally. Unfortunately, that kind of change takes time,” Mezzo said.