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Government by the people, as long as they bother

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published May 18. 2014 4:00AM

Once again, towns across the region are going through the ritual of having budgets argued over, debated and enacted by the handful of public officials who serve as selectmen or councilors and who sit on boards of education and finance.

In most communities, the budgets for municipal government and education are then presented to the voters for thumbs up or down - in some municipalities as separate items and in others together.

Once again, the loudest verdict is - we don't care.

At least they don't care enough about spending priorities and taxes to stop by the local voting place and cast a ballot.

In Preston, for example, citizens confronted a critical policy question. Presented to town voters was an $11.2 million education budget representing a 5.4 percent increase in spending. That would be a big increase most any year, but particularly so during a time when the region and many households continue to struggle economically.

Driving the bulk of the increase was a proposal to provide a universal preschool program for all 4-year-olds in Preston. Evidence is mounting that providing children a quality educational foundation at younger ages benefits them enormously as they move through the primary grades. The studies suggest the upfront investment is well worth the long-range return.

However, it is expensive and permanently expands the cost of education for a community. By a 330-236 vote, the people of Preston rejected the education budget, while at the same time approving the municipal spending plan.

The decision rejecting the education budget was understandable, but what is difficult to comprehend is the lousy turnout, just 18 percent of eligible voters. That turnout level suggests many parents with young children in town did not vote. They couldn't be bothered.

Some would have voted "no," anyway, more concerned with higher taxes than excited about the prospect of their children getting a solid pre-K foundation. Many, I am sure, don't buy the pre-K philosophy. My suspicion, however, is that if more parents had considered the pre-K issue and voted, the education budget would have passed.

Unfortunately, Preston is the rule, not the exception; only 5.6 percent of eligible voters, for example, showed up to approve the Region 4 School District budget for the school system that serves Chester, Deep River and Essex.

On the same day Preston voted, so too did Griswold, where 15 percent of registered voters participated, rejecting both the municipal and education spending plans.

In Stonington, some saw it as a decent turnout when 20 percent came to the polls to approve the town budget with its 0.55-mill tax rate increase. When a turnout of one out of five people is applauded, it shows how low the bar is getting. In fairness, several hundred people - the vast majority parents with children in school - had packed a public hearing on the budget earlier in the process to complain about the finance board lopping off $525,000 from the Board of Education's budget request. The Board of Finance subsequently restored about half the money.

When she visited with The Day's editorial board last week, Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill said growing voter apathy in local elections is troubling.

Participation in sharp decline

"In the last few years it has really been plummeting," she said of the local vote.

She attributed it to several factors.

People are not engaged in their local communities as they once were, she said. Many have negative views of politics and the election process generally and tune out.

Merrill also pointed to a generational shift. The secretary said she has found many of those 35 and younger do not share the sense of obligation to vote that their parents and grandparents had.

In the 2013 municipal elections, only 31.4 percent of eligible voters participated, with a low of 5.2 percent in the capital, Hartford.

This is also translating into fewer people willing to run for office locally, Merrill said.

"For the first time in the history - that we could find - no one ran for office in one of the towns. No one wanted the first selectman's office, neither party could find anyone to do the job," Merrill said of the 2011 election in Scotland.

This is troubling at the local level. In the broader picture, growing apathy and indifference may turn out to be a greater threat to effective self-governance than any terrorist plot or military foe.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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