Editor's Note: This version corrects that the town meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on June 15.
NORTH STONINGTON — Officials will reevaluate where signage is placed to advertise a second referendum on the town’s annual budget, consider sending mailers to all residents and work with the Board of Education to help directly notify parents as part of an effort to increase participation in order to get a budget passed.
Members of the Board of Selectmen explored the different ways to increase turnout during its meeting on Tuesday. Selectwoman Nita Kincaid said she would like to see the town take additional measures after both the proposed general government and education budgets were rejected at a May 17 referendum that drew less than 400 voters.
“I’m really concerned about how we get people to come out,” Kincaid said. “During the previous referendum, we just didn’t appeal to people and we need to do more to appeal to them and make them want to vote.”
The town is moving forward with its second attempt to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, and the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday set a town meeting for June 15 with a referendum vote scheduled for June 28. The board also unanimously approved setting a temporary mill rate of 28.6 mills — the rate is based on the second budget proposal, which has been reduced from the initial proposal — and would adjust the rate as needed after a final budget eventually approved by town residents.
First Selectman Michael Urgo said the goal of the rate is not to overstep the process and emphasized that the rate will allow the town to operate without concern over cash flow while the final budget is still being determined.
If the town doesn’t find a way to increase participation in the coming referendum, however, Kincaid expressed concerns that the process could be heading to a similar rejection to that which took place in May.
The town’s first referendum drew a small turnout, with 496 residents casting their ballot, or just over 11% of the town's 4,474 active voters. Residents rejected the general government proposal, 276-217, and the education proposal failed by 12 votes, 254-242. Three people cast ballots that voted on the education budget but not on the general government proposal.
Kincaid said she is concerned that with a small turnout, not enough of the community is weighing in on the town’s financial future. She said that without people voting, officials have been left to guess in many ways what it is that the public as a whole wants. Urgo cautioned that the turnout wasn’t uncharacteristically low, however, and low turnout at referendum is not something the town is unfamiliar with.
“This is not a new problem, it is something we have dealt with in previous years,” Urgo said.
The discussion led to concepts including reducing the time of the referendum vote to noon to 8 p.m., rather than starting at 6 a.m., and using money saved to issue a mailer the day of the referendum. Selectman Bob Carlson said such a measure could prove beneficial in getting more people out, and said in working the polls during the May referendum, there were only a few pockets of voters who had come through by 11 a.m.
“I don’t think that many people voted while I was there,” Carlson said. “We don’t need to (be open) 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on a budget referendum. That law is just for election of offices. We can take that money and use it towards a mailer to send to every resident in town.”
Both Kincaid and Urgo rejected the idea, saying they believed it could negatively impact those who would prefer to vote in the morning.
Urgo also requested the town seek ways to alert residents and encourage use of absentee ballots as well. Due to the pandemic, the town has elected to allow all residents to request a mail-in ballot to vote.
The revised budget, which was approved 4-2 by the Board of Finance last week, calls for a $21.08 million combined general government, education, debt and capital budget. It represents a $110,000 reduction in spending from what was previously rejected while also using an additional $9,000 from the undesignated fund in order to offset tax increases. The budget carries a debt liability of $1.38 million, a 14.28% increase over the current year's liability, and decreases capital spending by $77,422 or 21.28%.
If approved, general government expenses would be set at $5.18 million, representing an increase of 1.35% in the coming year, and the Board of Education would receive $14.28 million in funding, a 1.13% increase over current spending.
The town meeting will be held Tuesday at 7 p.m. and will also include several other line item requests for voters to weigh in on. Those who wish to speak or vote are asked to register with the North Stonington town clerk no later than noon on June 15.