With fairly little debate, the Legislative Council voted to send the $106,626,075 budget request to public referendum without any modifications Wednesday night at the Municipal Center.
At the same time, the final vote results, 8 to 4 in favor of the proposal, indicated some controversy regarding the final budget amount.
After citing statistics that appeared to show rising unemployment and an increase in education expenses at a disproportionate rate to inflation and town services, council member Rich Woycik attempted to cut $1 million from the budget request — $200,000 from the town’s contingency and $800,000 from the education system.
“I recognize that this is a very difficult choice that we have to make,” Woycik said.
But he was unable to garner enough support, with only Dan Amaral and Bob Merola being the only members willing to back his proposed million dollar cut. Merola said he remained convinced Newtown High School offered too many electives and has too many certified staff.
Other council members said they had reviewed the budget request in detail and could find little room for cuts that would not negatively affect town services although a few said they disagreed with the addition of a fourth Newtown High School assistant principal.
While most council members spoke to the reason for their vote, George Ferguson was among the exceptions, keeping quiet during deliberations but joined Woycik, Amaral and Merola as part of the opposition in the final vote.
Ferguson said in an interview after the meeting that he did not want to “obfuscate” the points Woycik and Merola were making, and that he would let his vote speak for itself – he did not agree with the proposed amendment that sought to cut an additional $1 million from the budget but he also was not in favor of the budget as presented. Ferguson made no follow-up amendments of his own.
One thing nearly all of the council members appeared to agree was that if they sent the proposed budget to referendum and the voters rejected it, there would be no other choice but to cut from the budget -- a situation unlike last year when education supporters sought to convince council members that a “no” vote might have been cast by some who wanted education funds added back to the budget.
“Sending the budget as proposed -- a no vote means too high,” council member Ben Spragg said. "We won’t need advisory questions to figure that out so I will vote to support the town school system and pass the proposal to referendum as presented."
It took three referendums last year before the budget was finally approved. Officials said they are hoping this year the town will only have one referendum, although turnout may be a problem. Last week’s referendum on the charter revision drew record low voter turnout.
“Are we going to have that kind of apathy?” Ferguson asked Capeci as the two walked out the Municipal Center after the meeting.
Capeci said low turnout would put the referendum in jeopardy of failing. In order to pass, enough people who support the budget would have to come out to the polls to counteract the faithful group of residents who vote “no” every year to the budget request.
“We can expect the 2,000 ‘no’ votes,” Capeci said.
The budget referendum is scheduled for April 26. If the proposal were to pass, it would lead to a tax increase of 2.7-percent. The mill rate would change to 24.64 from 24.