CHARLESTOWN — Voters dealt a decisive defeat Monday to a controversial proposed budget that allocated a more than $3 million surplus to a community and senior center, rejecting it by a margin of 739 to 265.
Voter turnout in the financial town referendum was high compared to previous budget referendums, with 1,004 voters, or 15 percent of 6,656 eligible voters, casting their ballots.
The proposed 2020 budget was $30.3 million, a 6.4 percent increase over the current budget of $27.7 million. The property tax rate would have remained at the current level of $9.64 per $1,000 of taxable value.
What some residents objected to was the allocation in the proposed spending plan of a $3.1 million surplus to a construction line item for a new community center, to be built at Ninigret Park.
Members of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, who hold a strong majority on the Town Council, argued that the town had a rare opportunity to build the center without having to incur debt, however, the opposition Charlestown Residents United urged residents to reject the budget with its construction line item because of insufficient public consultation and a lack of information on how much a community center would actually cost to build. The CRU also suggested that the surplus might be better spent on other initiatives, including a property tax cut.
Town Council President Virginia Lee, who had supported the construction of a new community center, said she was nevertheless pleased that so many residents had voted.
“I honor all those who came out,” she said. “A high level of civic engagement is really healthy, really good for the town. So now the town councilors need to discuss with each other at the next council meeting, which is a public meeting next Monday, June 10, and explore the implications with the finance director and deliberate next steps.”
Town Council Vice President Deborah Carney, the lone CRU member on the council, had conducted a public information campaign encouraging voters to reject the budget because of the way the surplus had been allocated.
“I’m pleased with the voter turnout and I’m pleased that the voters have spoken, and now the council needs to listen,” she said. “The residents now have an opportunity to decide what they want to do with their money, because this is the town’s money. It’s up to the townspeople to decide what to do with it.”
Carney said the town should hire an outside company to survey residents to determine if they want a community center and if so, what amenities it should offer. The council has already received a petition with more than 300 signatures requesting that such a survey be conducted.
“They asked that a professional, objective survey be done to find out what, if anything, the people want in terms of recreation in town, “ she said. “So I think, number one, people need to find out what they want and number two, we need to decide what to do with this $3 million. There’s a lot of options that were never even explored that could be discussed.”
With the proposed budget defeated, the town will continue to operate under the current budget. A new budget will be presented in the coming months, and there will be another referendum.
Lee said that despite the budget defeat, the town was in excellent financial shape.
“What community wouldn’t be grateful to have a budget surplus and low taxes, both together — it’s remarkable,” she said. “A deficit would be a cause for concern, if this was a big deficit, but a surplus is cause for optimism and an indication of a well-run town, so I think now we need to work together to find out what people really want in a way that builds community.”