Guilford Searching for Budget Timeline with Potential of Absentee Vote
As the town moves forward with its 2021-’22 budget, the process for approving it remains uncertain and town officials are grappling with charter-mandated deadlines, expiring executive orders, and the continued need for safety during a pandemic.
Board of Finance (BOF) Chair Michael Ayles said that right now, the plan is to move forward with the budget in as ordinary a manner as possible, with two workshops this week and a public hearing on Saturday, March 7.
Town officials have made it clear they would rather not see the budget approved the way it was last year, without a public vote, but it was still uncertain exactly when or how voters would be able to weigh in.
“I can tell you that not one member of the [BOF] wants to do that,” Ayles said. “We want the public to vote on the budget.”
First Selectman Matt Hoey committed to having a vote by the townsfolk, though he expressed concern that the ongoing danger of the pandemic would depress the already-low turnout of budget referenda in the town.
“Because we traditionally have low voter turnout for budget referenda, there is a potential to impact that even further because folks might not feel comfortable coming out to vote in person,” he said.
Guilford’s charter sets a strict day for its annual budget meeting—the first Tuesday of April—and also requires “adoption of the budget shall be by a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote of the annual budget meeting...at a date not less than 7 nor more than 14 days thereafter.”
That means the latest approval date for the budget is April 20 this year, much earlier than most other towns around the state.
In an unfortunate coincidence, Governor Ned Lamont’s current executive powers under the pandemic state of emergency expire on April 20. According to Hoey, this could make any state executive action allowing absentee voting for budget votes less likely.
At a BOF meeting last week, First Selectman Matt Hoey said it was still unclear whether the state would make allowances for in-person, or possibly absentee, voting before that date. He said he had been in contact both with local state representatives and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) hoping to get a more concrete idea of what was happening in Hartford.
The BOS has the option to tweak dates for the budget referendum in an attempt to allow the use of absentee voting if that does become allowed, Hoey said. A very specific state statute allows Connecticut towns to temporarily modify dates for budget votes without going through a charter revision process.
Because the annual budget meeting could technically modify the final budget, the BOS might also need to move a final vote to make sure it could print and distribute those ballots, which Hoey said would be difficult, if not impossible, in the currently designated two-week period.
“The idea is to move the window between the annual budget meeting and the referendum,” he said.
If the state does not provide the ability to vote absentee, there would be no need to move the dates and likely the referendum would be held on the usual assigned dates.
“We can hold it, it’s just the potential to disenfranchise a significant proportion of folks who might come out to vote but who are still not comfortable going into situations like [in-person voting],” Hoey said, noting that around 50 percent of Guilford residents cast absentee ballots last November.
Regardless of when, how, and where the budget is voted on, Ayles said his current priority is getting as much input as possible from residents ahead of the BOF finalizing the budget, which likely will happen on March 7.
Last year, the town delayed approval of the budget in order to receive more public comment and adapt its thinking to a suddenly altered world, having initially settled on final numbers just days before shutdowns swept across the state.
The town eventually received almost 200 emailed comments and dozens of calls and other communications, and the BOF chose to cut an additional $300,000, split between the town and the schools.
Ayles said technically, the BOF can make a decision to finalize the budget at either the March 4 or 7 meeting but did not commit to either date, saying he wanted to make sure there were plenty of chances for voters to weigh in.
Depending on participation and when or how the final budget vote will happen, Ayles said likely there could be additional special meetings or public hearings scheduled in order to garner even more input from the public.
“We should proceed in a way that we would typically proceed until told otherwise,” Ayles said. “So I would like to think that we’re going to proceed in a way that we would be going to an in-person budget referendum for the voters in the future.”
Similar to last year, the town has a special email address, email@example.com, exclusively for public comments on the budget. Information about the budget is currently on the website.
Last year Ayles said there was relatively little public input at the town’s virtual meetings as residents were still growing used to the world of Zoom, though the flood of correspondence showed a much higher level interest in the budget than in many previous years/
“It’ll be interesting this year to see how people want to address it,” Ayles said. For updated information on the budget, visit www.ci.guilford.ct.us/proposed-budget-information. Comments can be sent to the town via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instructions on how to join budget hearings can be found on the town website www.ci.guilford.ct.us.