Weston prepares for budgets referendum
April 15 will have special significance for Weston taxpayers. In addition to their taxes being due, the 2010--11 town and school budgets will be decided by a referendum vote, rather than the typical approval process at the annual town budget meeting. This hasn't happened since 1996.
"It will be very easy for people to remember," said Gayle Weinstein, Weston's first selectman. "On Tax Day, people can vote on their taxes."
The operating budgets for the school and the town, totaling approximately $55 million, will be approved or nixed by a majority vote once the polls at Weston Middle School close.
Out of 169 municipalities in the state, Weston is one of 49 that has been using a town meeting format to determine a budget. At these meetings, any registered voter living in Weston can show up to vote on whether to approve the budget determined by the Board of Finance. Motions can also be made by people in the crowd to lower the budget even further.
The referendum came to fruition as a way to boost low turnout on budget decision by Weston for Fiscal Responsibility, a non-partisan group that describes its mission as "financial restraint and fiscal responsibility at the local level."
Nina Daniel, chairman of Weston for Fiscal Responsibility, sought to have the referendum not because of any issues with the budget itself, but because the organization wants to increase voter participation in municipal affairs. Two-hundred signatures are needed for a referendum to be utilized, and she said there were 275 willing signees in the first day alone.
"Our efforts were entirely aimed at voter turnout," Daniel said.
Daniel said that in the past few years, there has only been an average of 152 people who have shown up, which was similar to Weinstein's estimations. There are approximately 6,500 registered voters in Weston. Daniel believes the time of the meeting can be inconvenient to some people -- such as parents who have students going to school the next day or seniors who are unable to drive at night.
For comparison, Daniel began looking at neighboring towns to see how they fare in turnout for a referendum. She said they run the gamut from approximately 11 to 50 percent compared to the 2.56 percent that show up at Weston's budget meeting.
The amount of voters that will turn out is uncertain, and Daniel likened this year's referendum to a test to see what can be done in the future. For a town-wide vote to be conducted each year, the town charter would have to change. At this time, she said Weston for Fiscal Responsibility has no plans to push for a change in the charter.
"Our vindication will come if we get more than 152 people out to vote, so we feel the bar is pretty low," said Daniel.
The annual town budget meeting will still take place tonight at 8 p.m. in Weston High School -- mostly for a discussion on the budgets. The vote will be on April 15 at the Weston Middle School. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
If voters don't favor either (or both) of the budgets, then it'll be back to the drawing board.
"If it's not then we have to start all over again. If they vote the town budget down, then the Board of Finance will have to come up with another number and then ... it goes to referendum again," Weinstein said.
What will happen when the polls close on April 15 is unknown, but Weinstein places value on the good that comes from the meetings where budget decisions have been made in the prior years.
"To me, I prefer the annual town budget meeting because it gives a chance not only for just an up or down vote but for some discussion," she said. "It's the time when anybody in town can voice an objection to certain items and make a motion to amend them."
-- Gary Jeanfaive, managing editor, contributed to this report.