The Boards of Selectmen and Finance will soon begin their work on the budget for the next fiscal year. While neighboring towns are recovering from the real estate slump, Woodbridge home values stand near 2003 levels and our taxes continue to rise. Per capita, property taxes in Woodbridge are the highest in New Haven County, tenth highest of the 169 towns in Connecticut. Woodbridge leaders defend these high taxes by citing the Town’s lack of income from a commercial base. But many other Connecticut towns have similarly small commercial areas, yet have far lower taxes. Every budget has two sides – revenue and expenditures.
“Taxes at Home: A Comparison of Municipal Spending,” published last year by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy (a non-profit think tank based in Hartford) analyzed the expense side of the budgets of Connecticut’s 169 cities and towns. It explains why Woodbridge taxes are so high: Woodbridge has the tenth highest per capita municipal spending in the state.* One hundred and fifty nine Connecticut towns—Fairfield, Monroe, Roxbury, Avon, Litchfield, Guilford, Orange and Madison among them—educate their children, pay their town employees, maintain their roads, provide for public safety, and perform all of the functions of local government at a lower cost than Woodbridge.
School spending is not the culprit. Woodbridge’s per student education expenditure compares favorably to other high performing towns. Where we overspend is on Town operations.
As a conservationist, I believe our Town should conserve all of its resources, including its tax dollars. Based on what I learned last year, my first time through the budget process as a member of the Board of Selectmen (BOS), I have several suggestions on how the process could be reformed to achieve a higher level of transparency and accountability and thus control spending.
First, I recommend the BOS begin the budget process with a robust public discussion about overall budget goals. We should identify one or two departments for particular focus, comparing our departments to similar towns, both the services offered and the efficiency with which those services are delivered.
Second, I would like the public to have more input. Currently, the only budget meeting that permits public comment is the Preliminary Budget Hearing in late April. By this time the process is nearly complete. I would suggest that public comment be added to the agenda for every budget meeting.
Third, the Town should re-evaluate the relationship between the Boards of Selectmen and Finance in developing the budget. Typically the Selectmen provide a cursory review of the requested budget relatively early in the process and vote to pass it along to the Board of Finance (BOF), where the majority of the reductions are made. The Selectmen never formally review the budget after the BOF has done its work. We Selectmen should weigh in publically on the final budget before it goes to the residents for approval.
Fourth, the budget should be approved at a referendum, not by show of hands at the Annual Town meeting. The complexities of modern life make attendance at that meeting impractical for many people. Indeed, a quorum is rarely achieved and typically the budget passes by default. We have a budget referendum every year for the Amity school system; it would be a simple matter to vote on the town budget at the same time. In this way, a much more transparent, democratic process would be achieved.
In the last Town election, our campaign identified what we view as a root cause of the Town’s overspending problem: the Woodbridge BOF is appointed rather than elected. As a result, currently there are no members of the Republican Party on the BOF. A more representative finance board that is directly accountable to voters would better serve its intended function as watchdog over Town spending. It has been more than a decade since the Town Charter was revised. It is time to review our Town Charter to reconsider many practices, including how our BOF members are chosen, in light of changing Town needs and the new financial realities we face.
*Taxes at Home: A Comparison of Municipal Spending (Yankee Institute for Public Policy) www.yankeeinstitute.org, p. 15.
By Selectman Maria Cruz Kayne