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Coronavirus and its Unintended Political Consequence

Published April 3, 202 in Woodbridge Town News

There is one topic on all our minds, the coronavirus. Our town is doing what every town in Connecticut, indeed every town across the country, needs to do. While it is tough to curtail our daily routines and give up the many in-person volunteer activities that make Woodbridge such a great place to live, it is terrific to see the residents of Woodbridge following the directives from all levels of government so as to do our part in slowing down the virus.

As you stay close to home, please give a shout out to those who continue to leave their homes for our benefit. We are blessed with dedicated volunteer firefighters who respond to calls as needed to keep us safe. In addition, some town employees continue to report physically to work and engage with the public as they can’t perform their jobs on-line, especially police officers and public works employees. Supporting local businesses that provide take-out/delivery/drive thru and curbside services is a good idea too – keeping the local economy going now makes for a faster recovery when life settles back down.

Extraordinary measures have impacted our politics as well. The CT Presidential Preference Primary was pushed from March 28 to June 2. On Saturday, March 21, Gov. Lamont waived the requirement Connecticut municipalities hold town meetings to adopt annual budgets. Our Board of Selectmen has functionally taken the place of the town meeting by the Governor’s action, but the authority to approve our spending plans and our mill rate is still in the hands of the Board of Finance. Several ideas come to mind about this.

First, in concept, it goes against the grain to take any steps taking final say from the voting public on something as important as our local public finances. Majority should rule, but the current circumstance is extraordinary, granted. Our Town Charter requires 250 people attend our town meeting to make quorum for any vote, a number we unfortunately have failed to reach in most recent years. Last year, when our mill rate was on the brink of going over 40, there was a substantially higher than usual turn out at our town meeting, with many first-time attendees ready to vote the budget down. It seemed that a quorum might be reached, and as officials started counting heads in the gym, I spied several Democrats casually stand up and step out of the gym, in an obvious attempt to not be counted. The irony of the party constantly accusing the other of voter suppression pulling this trick was impossible to miss. The final count was less than the required quorum and the budget did indeed pass by a vote of the Board of Finance. So, it seems except for which body would approve or reject the proposed budget (a town quorum or now the BOS), the Governor’s change in the process would not have a practical impact in Woodbridge. But the subtle change of putting the BOS squarely in the process puts us closer to where we should be – elected officials being responsible for how we spend our money – and how much they collect.

Second, in the last municipal election cycle, one of the planks of the Republican slate was to change our Charter to elect our Board of Finance as we do the Board of Selectmen. It is still the position of Woodbridge Republicans that an elected board, not the appointed board, have final say on our budget and all-important mill rate. Voters should be able to directly voice their support, or lack thereof, with how our finances are handled by voting those in ultimate control of the budget in or out. So while the obvious intent of the Governor is to limit public gatherings, an unintended consequence for Woodbridge is to reopen this discussion – a vitally important one.

Regarding the pending Woodbridge budget itself, much has been said to down-play the possible increase in our mill rate by pointing out 2/3 of our homes have had a valuation decrease so the net impact on our tax bills will be minimal. That’s very short-sighted and misses the obvious issue that our property values are going down BECAUSE of the high mill rate. It’s a circular argument that only hurts Woodbridge taxpayers.

Our collective attention still needs to focus on ”flattening the curve” of the coronavirus spread, but as our daily lives are disrupted, there may be time to reflect on issues many leave to “autopilot,” such as the management of our small town. It would be great if many of us came out of this once-in-a-lifetime situation with a new perspective on issues that impact our lives. How best to guide our town would be a good one to make that list, as there is certainly room for improvement.

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