Back when these towns were just creating their charters, people obviously thought it would be a good idea for the citizens of the town to have direct control over the budget process. It makes sense, doesn't it? It's the people's money that's being spent, so they should have the final say in the matter.
Unfortunately, this is in practice a terrible idea. Modern budgets are extremely complex, and become more so the larger a town becomes. Therefore, it isn't the people who draw up the budget, but (in most cases) either a board of finance or the board of selectmen/town council. In towns where referendums are held, the budget, once passed out of the creating body, goes directly to the people for a simple "yes or no" vote.
How can a complex budget with hundreds, even thousands of items and expenses in it be reduced to a simple yes or no? In referendum country, it usually goes something like this:
YES = Children!
NO = Low taxes!
This comes with a whole host of arguments, pitting anti-tax cranks against overzealous soccer moms in a titanic battle over whether or not to hike the mill rate from 32 to 34. Invariably, the budget is framed by how much it raises taxes. This is a disservice both to the citizens and to the framers of the budget, since it portrays the budget simply as a burden for the people to bear rather than a complex document that can be drastically affected by forces outside the town's control. Cuts in state aid and the loss of business and industry (i.e. the tax base) can be budget-busters, forcing a town to increase taxes dramatically just to keep services steady.
Another problem is dreadfully low attendence. An example from a regional school distruct:
Barkhamsted residents passed the budget by a 110 to 60 vote; Colebrook 82 to 42; New Hartford, 323 to 240; and Norfolk, 85 to 26. (Jordan-Reilly)
This budget actually passed, but look at the numbers:
Barkhamsted had 170 votes cast. Barkhamsted has 3,494 residents. Colebrook had 124 votes, New Hartford 563 and Norfolk 111. The populations of those towns, respectively, is 1,471, 6,088 and 1,660. Even if only half of the citizens are registered to vote, those numbers are still abysmal. By comparison, 887 people voted in the 2004 presidential election in Colebrook: more than seven times the number who voted in the referendum.
The usual pattern is: the lower the turnout, the less chance a budget has of being passed.
So what we have here is a system that reduces complex budgets to simple yes or no votes, and leaves the final decision up to a relatively small portion of the voting population. Is this really the best way to decide something so critical?
Here is a partial list of towns and regions that have defeated budgets in the past few weeks:
Regional School District 9
Guilford (library expansion)
Regional School District 6
Regional School District 15
A fluke in Bloomfield meant that the budget passed automatically. There were not enough people at the town meeting to get a quorum.
Jordan-Reilly, Melissa. "Region Officials Thrilled With Budget’s Passage." Tri-Corner Extra 6 May 2005.