It is no secret that the Newtown Budget process, which went
to referendum five times, is broken. The various boards including the Board of
Education, The Board of Selectmen, The Board of Finance and the Legislative
Council spent the better part of a year crafting a budget proposal and the
voters turned them down over and over again. There is no more serious display
Rather than critique what went wrong I would like to discuss
what needs to be done, starting immediately, if our elected officials want to
avoid another budget debacle.
First yes there will be split budgets and advisory
questions, and that will reduce some of the noise level in the community.
However this will not prevent another budget season such as Newtown just had.
There are other fundamental actions which need to take place to correct the
process, pull Newtown’s taxpayers together and pass fair and equitable budgets
on the first vote.
Perhaps the most critical step is to sell the value of the
expenses to the taxpayers and to tell them why the proposed budget provides
value to individuals and the community. This is not a two week project, it’s a yearlong
continuous effort to explain to the taxpayer what they get for their money, and
then the taxpayer has to agree that the funds are being spent on things they
value. All our elected officials, the PTA’s, and various interest groups need
to be involved.
Collaboration is imperative. If the different boards all
criticize each other, and in general don’t show support for the current
expenditures and the proposed budget it is destined to fail. Voters are like
our pets they sense how we are feeling. The lack of constant and overt support
for the current spending plan and the proposed budget will be sniffed out by
the taxpayer and the result will be another five referendums.
The new reality is that the budgets will come under closer
scrutiny by taxpayer groups. The budgets must reflect the real and recognized
needs of the taxpayers or they will fail to support them. The budgets need to
be transparent and when scrutinized not have pockets of extra money hidden from
the full view of the taxpayers. They will find out about the socked away slush
funds and doom the budget to failure due to lack of trust in any of the
numbers. Everything needs to be upfront
and discussed, in full detail with all the implications if trust is to be
The voters are coming to see that budgets need to make sense
and fit into a vision of what the town wants to become. Our elected officials
will have to galvanize the taxpayer around the vision and long term plan if
they want to do anything more than maintain a “same services budget. Each dollar has to provide value, period.
So the game plan has to be to communicate honestly with the
taxpayers as to why you want the dollars and what value they will get from the
expenditure. The time to start that dialogue is now, not next year.