The COVID-19 has forced social distancing measures to be put in place and part of that social distancing is avoiding potentially crowded civic engagement practices like in-person municipal voting.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive orders suspended in-person voting requirements for the adoption of municipal budgets and setting mill rates and some town officials and taxpayers aren’t happy about it.
According to the Office of Policy and Management, as of 2018 there were 69 towns that required a budget to be approved by referendum and although the state is moving forward on easing restrictions on May 20, towns are having to move forward on passing municipal budgets without a vote.
The Town of Bethel’s Board of Selectmen passed a resolution based on Lamont’s executive order granting the town’s Board of Finance the ability to approve the budget by “no later than May 15.”
But Bethel Board of Finance member Cynthia McCorckindale says that is not okay. She has filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department against both Lamont and the Bethel Board of Selectmen.
“We are the only state in New England where the governor usurped voting rights,” McCorkindale said in an interview. “If they can distribute food at schools safely, we can hold referendum votes safely.”
We are the only state in New England where the governor usurped voting rights.Cynthia McCorkindale, Board of Finance member in the Town of Bethel
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation allowing municipalities to postpone budget deadlines and continue operating on their FY 2020 budgets on month-to-month basis. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can also “certify and amount sufficient for the operation of the district, until a budget can be adopted.”
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and New Hampshire Gov. Christopher Sununu issued executive orders regarding municipal and school budgets similar to Massachusetts. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended budget deadlines for municipal and education elections and budget votes until June 9. The votes will be conducted with absentee ballots.
There did not appear to be any action taken regarding municipal voting in Vermont or Maine.
The Town of Colchester is looking at a 1.22 percent increase in its town budget and a 2.99 percent increase in its Board of Education budget, although there is no indication how the increase might affect property taxes.
Colchester Selectman Taras W. Rudko says the budget approval process should wait until there can be a vote by town residents.
“In past years in the absence of an approved budget by town referendum we have operated on the previous year’s budget,” Rudko wrote on his Facebook page. “Why are we holding the meeting or even attempting to take action on something that may very well expire?”
New Milford Mayor Pete Bass took to social media with New Milford’s Town Attorney Randy DiBella to explain why the town could not hold a mail-in vote on the budget, calling Lamont’s executive order “incredibly revolutionary” in nature.
“Why? Because it does away with a citizen vote on the budget, and it’s mandatory,” DiBella said. “The referendum is the vote, that’s been dispensed with by this order – and it’s not a suggestion, it’s an order.”
DiBella said the order was put into place to prevent people from congregating at voting centers to help stop the spread of the virus.
Lamont actually issued four orders related to municipal voting and budgets. The first extended town charter deadlines, the second – Executive Order 7I — empowered Boards of Finance to approve and pass budgets without a referendum vote, and the third allowed in-person voting if it could be done in a safe process approved by public health officials.
“Nothing in this order shall be construed to prohibit a municipality from conducting any in-person meeting, approval process, or referendum, provided such municipality first consults with local or state public health officials and conducts such meeting, approval process, or referendum in a way that significantly reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19,” the April 1 Executive Order 7S says.
The latest order issued on May 1, however, appeared to double-down on his original order that Boards of Finance pass municipal budgets without a vote and contradict his April 1 order that voting could conducted if it was done safely.
Executive Order 7HH requires that the local budget-making authority set the town budget for the upcoming fiscal year, “and to suspend any requirement for a vote on such budgets or mill rates by residents, electors, or property owners, including but not limited to any vote by annual town meeting or referendum.”
The General Assembly’s Conservative Caucus balked at the latest order, saying it infringes on the rights of Connecticut’s citizens and called for the paragraph related to municipal budgets to be rescinded.
“With the issuance of Executive Order 7HH… you have now stripped Connecticut taxpayers of their right to be heard on local budgets, and essentially mandated that local budget-making authorities adopt municipal budgets without any public input – regardless of the procedures any given local authority may wish to follow.”
Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns says protecting public health is the top priority.
“While we understand that town meetings and referendums are basic tenets of our democracy, municipalities needed some way of moving forward with adopting local budgets without risking the health of their residents and municipal officials,” Gara said.
Most towns are budgeting very conservatively, recognizing that their residents and businesses cannot tolerate significant increases in property taxes.Betsy Gara, Executive Director of the Council of Small Towns
“Most towns are budgeting very conservatively, recognizing that their residents and businesses cannot tolerate significant increases in property taxes. Towns have also adopted tax deferral or low interest rate programs to assist residents and businesses,” Gara said.
At least one town found a creative way to hold a referendum on its budget before Lamont issued his latest executive order.
The Town of Vernon on April 28 held a budget referendum via drive-by and walk-up voting, ultimately passing its budget which had some spending increases but left the mill rate flat.
The vote garnered 106 votes with the overwhelming majority approving the budget.
“In Vernon, we are well-aware of the danger of COVID-19 and our primary concern is for the health and safety of our community,” said Vernon Town Manager Michael Purcaro.
“The town recognized a viable opportunity for residents to exercise their fundamental democratic right to vote. As a result, we safely conducted two public votes that strictly adhered to and exceeded all of the current public health guidance for social distancing and personal protection,” Purcaro said.
The vote in Vernon took place just days before Lamont’s latest executive order requiring that in-person voting be suspended, regardless of safety precautions.
“The good news is that more citizens are investing time in participating in virtual local board meetings, budget hearings, and making their voices heard,” Gara said. “Once the restrictions are lifted, we expect that citizens will come out to vote at town meetings and referenda in record numbers and we are looking forward to that time.”