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Voters Sour On Pickleball, Sweet On Budgets, Roads, School Projects

Published: April 23, 2019 at 09:30 pm

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UPDATE (April 24, 2019): This story has been updated with additional comments from Parks & Recreation officials and the Board of Finance Chair that were received after the initial posting of this report. 

An incorrect reference to a Sandy Hook capital project has also been corrected.

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Newtown taxpayers have authorized the requested $120,283,913 to fund the 2019-2020 annual operating budgets for the municipality and school district, along with authorizing bonding for local road repairs, and several capital projects at several local schools. But requested funding to build a new pickleball court at Fairfield Hills failed.

With fewer than 17 out of every 100 eligible residents casting ballots in the April 23 referendum at Newtown Middle School's polling location today, voters authorized the requested $78,104,410 for the school district 1,527 to 1,351 — and $42,179,503 for the municipal operating budget proposals 1,763 to 1,107.

(The municipal side of the budget carries all debt service for capital projects including those for the school district)

A request for $290,000 for the pickleball project — that came with an anonymous pledge of $25,000 to offset a measure of the expense — only received support from 699 voters, while a decisive 2,136 said No.

A capital request for $1 million for capital roads passed 2,455 to 402; a request for $2.7 million for a high school boiler/lighting replacement passed 1,945 to 905; and capital funding for a Hawley School boiler replacement and lighting retrofit totaling $783,200 passed 1,927 to 931.

When the approved spending plans take effect on July 1, they will generate a 2.7 percent increase in spending funded by a 1.56 percent bump in taxation over the current year. The projected new mill rate would be 34.77 — a mill represents one dollar in taxation for every $1,000 in taxable property.

Several Town officials who were present when the referendum results were announced, told The Newtown Bee they were pleased the budgets both passed on the first attempt, preserving a "one and done" track record that has persevered for six consecutive years.

The entire Board of Selectmen turned out to learn the budget vote outcomes.

First Selectman Dan Rosenthal said although he was disappointed by the low voter turnout — 2,880 votes were cast among more than 17,552 eligible to cast budget ballots — he was pleased to see the municipal side of the spending request pass by such a significant margin.

"Even though we don't take lightly spending other people's money, I think we put forward a responsible budget," Mr Rosenthal said. "I think people recognized that.

"But more importantly we work well as a team," he said looking toward his colleagues, Selectman Jeff Capeci and Selectman Maureen Crick-Owen. "Some people may want to seize on division and dissent, but we worked collaboratively developing the budget and even found some added savings after I presented the plan originally. I think that help to satisfy the taxpayers and we saw that result tonight."

Ms Crick-Owen agreed.

"We worked collaboratively and I'm glad the budgets passed on the first time around," she said. "I think what Dan brought us was pretty lean to start with — there wasn't a whole lot to start with, so he did a good job with the initial preparation of this budget."

Selectman Capeci, who previously chaired the Legislative Council as well, said said he spent a lot of time on analysis.

"I think the wide margins, as Dan said, shows the taxpayers appreciate what we did in presenting this budget, and also the high margin that the road [bonding authorization] passed by shows that spending was in line with the voters' expectations.

"Dan put forward a lean budget, he chose not to fill full-time positions that were open, and that helped bring the numbers down, and what we did focus on spending money on obviously passed by a large margin tonight," Mr Capeci added.

The Legislative Council was represented as the budget totals were announced as well.

Besides Council Vice-Chair Dan Wiedemann and Councilmen Phil Carroll and Dan Honan, Chairman Paul Lundquist also came out to hear referendum results first-hand, along with Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku, and Vice-Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites.

Happy to see both budgets passed, Ms Ku said, “I am pleased that voters support the [school] district and our community. The referendum is the last step in a long dialogue that starts with the budget proposal, a document that reflects the values of the district, and ends with the public vote.

“Today's vote lets us know that we can get to work with the proposal that was made.,” she added.

Ms Harriman-Stites said she was “thrilled,” the budget passed. “It’s a long process [that utilized] a lot of resources,” she said.

Saying he was “relieved and happy with the outcome,” Mr Lundquist added, “It’s nice to see people supporting the town.”

However, he said, “It’s hard to be excited given the low voter turn-out. It mitigates my excitement. People who show up get to decide.”

Ms Ku, who was standing with Mr Lundquist, observed, “You get big turn-outs for years with controversy, so lack of controversy is a good sign.”

Agreeing, Mr Lundquist surmised that “people didn’t get riled up at a modest [budget] increase.”

Superintendent of School Lorrie Rodrigue responded to the news offering "thanks to all of the community members who supported the education budget."

"This operational plan was a result of the collective efforts of the administrative team, staff, and Board of Education," Dr Rodrigue said. "The budget will contribute to future systemic improvements and appropriately serve the academic and social/emotional needs of our learners."

Board of Finance Chairman James Gaston said he appreciated the hard work of all the officials, administrators, town, and school representatives who played a role in this year's budget process.

"Thank you to the Newtown voters who approved the Town and Education budgets and referenda," Mr Gaston said. "Also, thank you to all who worked so long and hard in putting the budgets together."

Regarding the failed capital measure, Mr Gaston added, "It is more difficult to decipher the Pickleball court vote; voters may be expressing little interest, a scale down, or a wish for it to be restored to its original 2021-2022 Capital Improvement Plan schedule."

Reflecting on the outcome the following morning, Director of Newtown Parks and Recreation Amy Mangold said she was "disappointed but not surprised that the pickle ball courts did not pass." 

"It is a shame that this project under the voting threshold was brought to a referendum because we may have had the opportunity to amend or change the scope of the work and cost and still provide a wonderful asset to the community, the [Fairfield Hills] campus and the new [community] center at a very low impact to a voters wallet," Ms Mangold said. "We also lost out on a donation of $25,000. This project could have been a wonderful asset to...our community as a whole but many who did not see it as something they would benefit from did not want to support it."

Parks & Rec Commission Chairman Ed Marks said his panel will work to keep the project alive. "Given the result, I think it is appropriate for Parks & Recreation to work even more closely with Dan Rosenthal to achieve consensus on our priorities and to ensure that we have a common vision with regard to a Parks & Rec capital improvement plan over the next five years and beyond."

Ms Mangold pointed out that, "We also have the police station, community center and other large expenses that leaves many voters reluctant to spend money on other amenities. I hope when all the work is done and as this sport continues to grow we can reexamine some healthy play time opportunities for our residents."

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