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Canton voters defeat budget proposal

By John Fitts 

Staff Writer 


CANTON – Voters, by a count of 944-689, rejected the town’s recommended budget of $49,353,274 at referendum on May 7. 


The result not only requires officials to adjust the totals and send a plan back to voters within 30 days (tentatively set for June 4), but also represents the first time Canton voters have met the turnout threshold required to defeat a budget since the town began automatically sending annual spending packages to referendum. 


The rejected budget plan represented a 5.57 increase in spending. That proposal came after months of budget planning and meetings. Long before most of the public is tuned in to the process, the school superintendent and town chief administrative officer work with other staff to prepare their respective budgets. In the process they consider numerous factors, such collective bargaining agreements, current and projected costs, as well as new budget requests – most of which never make it to the respective plans. 


The budgets are then presented to the Board of Education and Selectmen. From there, the budgets are reviewed and often adjusted by the respective boards before being sent to the Board of Finance for consideration. 


The Board of Finance can make dollar (but not line item) adjustments and this year, made at least two rounds of cuts. The Board of Finance, with the help of town staff, also considers its own budget. Much of that can’t be changed as its debt service from past bonded projects, but there is also funding for annual budget mailers and this year funding for the town’s reserves was also added. 

This year, revaluation added angst to the budget process. As a result of revaluation, the grand list – an aggregate of values of residential real estate, commercial property, personal property and motor vehicles – resulted in a sharp increase for residential property overall, generally shifting more of the tax burden to homeowners. 


At an April 18 Town Meeting, Canton electors, by a count of 94-62, voted for a plan to phase in those increases over a four-year period, saving a large majority of taxpayers money on their residential real estate taxes, according to officials. But even with the phase in, the owner of a median home was facing an increase of several hundred dollars. And the phase-in will result in more taxes for a smaller portion of residential real estate owners whose values rose less than 37.56 %. The phase-in also creates a more mixed picture for motor vehicle taxes. 


With projected tax increases and a complex budget picture, the budget received much more attention that in recent years. It was only in 2020 that a change in the town’s charter – requiring a budget referendum - was set to go into effect. It didn’t happen that year, due to a COVID executive order that allowed the Board of Finance to set the budget. Proposed budgets in 2021 and 2022 received more yes than no votes at referendum but approximately 5.3 % and 3.7 % of voters turned out in those respective years. In 2023, the no votes outpaced the yes ones, but turnout represented just 7 percent of the 7,774 registered voters, meaning the budget passed automatically. 


In those recent years, attendance at budget hearings was also sparse. The crowd was often smaller than the volunteers and town staff seated at the table. 

This year, the numbers that went to referendum were endorsed by the majority of the Board of Finance. BOF member Tom Blatchley dissented, calling for much deeper cuts and verbally sparring with his fellow board members about the impact of such a move. 


Many town residents “loudly” expressed discontent on social media about rising costs in many facets of life and some also spoke at the phase-in meeting and the annual budget meetings. Other residents expressed support for the plan on social media and at the annual budget meeting. All of the attention greatly boosted turnout compared to previous referendums. 


And at the referendum, 1,633 of 7,924 eligible voters cast ballots in the unofficial numbers - resulting in a project turnout of 21 %. That is about triple the 2023 turnout. 

“This referendum failed because the majority of the Board of Finance failed our residents. Given today’s economic realities and the recent revaluation, people are scared and cannot shoulder a tax increase of this magnitude,” Blatchley said. “The voters decided they will not endorse a budget they cannot afford.  I will continue to advocate for a fiscally responsible budget.”


Board of Finance chair Katie Kenney expressed disappointment in the vote. 

“The results are disappointing because as a Board of Finance we tried to balance what the Board of Selectman and the Board of Education told us they needed with our responsibility to safeguard public funds and control taxes,” Kenney said.  “Unfortunately, there was a lot of misunderstanding of the reasons for the budget increase, which were principally things out of the town’s control that cannot be changed, including state-mandated special education requirements, contractually-required salary increases, and necessary environmental clean-up of the PFAS contamination at Cherry Brook School, and as a result there was a lot of wishful thinking that the budget could be cut significantly without painful cuts to our schools and public services.”


 “At the same time, I believe in democracy and am pleased to see such a large voter turnout and public interest in the referendum,” Kenney added. “As the Board of Finance prepares the new budget, we look forward to hearing from the public as to where they see the proper balance between tax reductions and service cuts. And we expect both the First Selectman and the Chair of the Board of Education to appear before us, defend their budgets, and answer hard questions so that we can provide the tax reductions voters have asked for with as little impact as possible. There was already very little new in this year’s budget, but if either of those Boards still plans to pursue new expenditures, we’ll need a very good explanation for why, and for them to identify and justify offsetting cuts in other areas.”


Board of Education chairman Lou Daniels also expressed disappointment. Additionally, he said some of the board’s line items that people on social media were attacking had already been adjusted and he objected to those who accused the board of scare tactics. 


“There’s no scare tactics,” he said. “This was an honest budget and we’re going to have probably consolidate class sizes and lose some teachers. … The only way you can save money when you’re given a significant cut is through people. You can’t do it through crayons and paper and desk chairs.”


Daniels, however, also acknowledged the message from voters. 

“It’s obviously disappointing. I think it was a solid defeat. We’re going to have to go back and really look at it and wait for the Board if Finance to tell us where we need to go,” he said the night of the vote. 


While First Selectman Kevin Witkos said he was not surprised by the referendum results and has also been critical of the Board of Finance for not further reducing the 2024-25 budget plan further prior to that vote, he said he looks forward to working collaboratively on a new proposal. 


“We at the board level are working collaboratively to present a budget to the residents for consideration,” Witkos said. “At the BOF budget public hearing, taxpayers will have an opportunity to see what different reductions in the budget represent to our operating budgets. I look forward to an engaged and informed public as we continue the budget process in town.”


Under the town’s charter, the Board of Finance must make budget adjustments and schedule a new referendum vote within 30 days.


The Board of Finance and Board of Education both met Tuesday, May 14 to further discuss budget matters. The Board of Education reviewed three tiers of potential reductions if the town goes with overall budget numbers that represents an increase of 4.99 %, 4.50 % or 3.99 %.


Following are remaining dates in this second round of budgeting, as noted on the town's web site:

• May 20, 2024 at 7:00pm the Board of Finance will hold a Public Hearing in Room F at the Canton Community Center. People can hear the meeting and make comments/questions by calling the following number: 1-929-436-2866, Webinar ID: 814 4980 7133, Passcode: 580724, Or view the meeting by using the following link - https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81449807133?pwd=VUVnVnc2SmRPYXRUMnJEdExKTlJ4dz09 The public may also send questions and comments on the budget to budgetquestions@TownofCantonCT.org All comments and questions will be forwarded to the members of the Board of Finance and made part of the public record. The Board of Finance will hold a Budget Workshop immediately following the Budget Public Hearing.


• BOARD OF EDUCATION May 21, 2024 at 6 pm the Board of Education will hold a meeting to discuss changes to the School budget based on the outcome of the May 20, 2024 Board of Finance Budget Workshop.


• BOARD OF SELECTMEN May 22, 2024 at 6:00pm the Board of Selectmen will hold a meeting to discuss changes to the Board of Selectmen budget based on the outcome of the May 20, 2024 Board of Finance Budget Workshop.


• Consistent with the Charter, the next referendum will be held on Tuesday, June 4, 2024 at the Canton Community Center from 6:00am to 8:00pm. Future referendums will be announced if necessary

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