Referendum push unlikely to come from taxpayers group

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NAUGATUCK — The borough’s Taxpayers in Revolt group is not likely to petition for a budget referendum this year, Chairman Alec Wargo said Monday.

“It’s not completely decided, but I don’t think we’re going to do it,” Wargo said. “If the differential isn’t big enough, the people don’t get very excited about it.”

The Joint Boards of Finance and Mayor and Burgesses approved a budget of nearly $108 million last Thursday that will increase taxes by 2.25 percent, or $112 for the average borough homeowner. The adopted budget will increase municipal government spending by 2 percent to nearly $50 million, while spending for public schools will go up 1.9 percent to roughly $58 million.

The borough charter says referendums on the municipal and school budgets must be held if petitions signed by 8 percent of borough voters are submitted to the borough clerk within 14 days of the budget’s adoption. Separate petitions must be turned in for municipal and school budget referendums. The deadline this year is June 7 and anyone — not just the taxpayer group — can circulate petitions.

As of this post, no one had stepped forward to begin the petition process.

Within five days of the petitions’ certification, the borough board must meet to set a referendum for 22 to 28 days after their meeting, according to the charter.

During the referendum, voters specify whether they think the school and municipal budgets are too high or too low. At least 15 percent of registered voters must participate for the results to be valid. If the referendum succeeds, the joint boards must hold another hearing and cut or increase the budgets according to the results of the vote. Up to three referendums can be held on the budget, and after the third vote, officials are only required to change each budget by $1.

If low turnout causes a referendum to fail, residents cannot petition for another chance to vote.

The taxpayer group last year quickly collected about 1,400 signatures to force a referendum on this fiscal year’s budget, which increased taxes 2.5 percent. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the government and school budgets as too high, but fewer than 7 percent participated in the July 19 referendum, discarding the results.

The experience last year disheartened residents who hoped to force more budget cuts. Wargo said he thought officials in recent years had been adopting the budget later in the spring on purpose, so referendums would be held in July while many were away on vacation.

“A good part of the townspeople are not in favor of the budget, but by the same token … what’s the use?” Wargo said.

The joint boards earlier this month had proposed a budget that would have meant a 3.7 percent tax increase, but adopted a lower number after residents at a May public hearing pleaded for tax relief.

Wargo said he thought the joint boards tried to respond to residents’ concerns, although he was still not satisfied with the increase. The taxpayer group hopes to make a change by pushing for new local and state leadership, Wargo said.

“Until the general populace decides to stand up and be heard, a small group can accomplish some things, but not everything,” Wargo said.