Thursday, October 13, 2005

Municipal Elections: Big Issues

I've been going around to a lot of municipal candidate sites, just to see what sorts of issues people across Connecticut seem to be concerned about this year. Here is a list of what the candidates, at least, are talking about:

The Budget

A perennial favorite in municipal elections. The town/city budget is a big concern, as how money is spent and how much money is allocated directly affects the lives of all citizens in one way or another.

Most budget discussions this year by members of both parties seem to be focused on managing the town's money wisely and/or stingily. I didn't see too many big-ticket projects being promoted by candidates, although there are a few here and there.

A traditional part of municipal elections is the opposition party accusing the party in power of mismanaging the town's funds, and the party in power retorting that the opposition is crazy and doesn't understand anything. This is happening just about everywhere.

Taxes

This goes hand in hand with the budget, and is becoming more important as state aid dwindles. Property taxes seem to be on everyone's minds, and most candidates are pledging to at least "hold the line," if not try to lower those taxes (good luck). Taxes, of course, are tied directly to...

Development

This is one of the most divisive issues in suburban and rural Connecticut today. Falling state aid and rising populations outside the cities and core suburbs means that towns suddenly have to find a way to provide services for more people with either the same or fewer funds than they had before. One way out is to encourage economic development (another is to fiddle with zoning laws to ensure that only huge, expensive houses are built), which often takes the form of big-box retailers and national franchises coming in to town. This, detractors say, ruins the "character" of a place, and hurts small business. The often-bitter fight over putting a Wal-Mart in an exurban or rural area can color town politics for years.

In older suburban and urban areas, the talk is usually about redevelopment and revitalization. These sorts of fights can be just as nasty: ask West Hartford.

Most candidates are treading cautiously here. Most promote economic development but stress the "character" of the town in the same breath.

Education

The biggest part of any town budget goes to the school system. In towns where budgets are decided by agonizing referendum after referendum, funding the schools can be an especially divisive issue.

Most candidates promise better schools through either clever management, new buildings or generally more spending. Few seem to have innovative plans.

Open, Accountable Government

Another favorite tactic of the opposition is to promise to "open city hall" to everybody, and to make government more accountable. This is easy to say, but almost impossible to deliver. Following years of statewide scandals, voters' desire for more open, accountable government may be increasing, and candidates who pledge this might actually be held to it.

Conclusions

There are plenty of other issues being talked about in cities and towns across the state, many of them town-specific.

It may be wise for next year's legislative and statewide candidates to see what issues have the greatest traction in local elections now.

4 comments:

Dave Mooney said...

Put another way, we have the big three issues which are really one issue: property taxes, education and economic development. In Stratford, we're underfunded by the state ECS formula, so our 75% residential tax base begrudgingly tries to pick up the slack to fund our overcrowded, middle-of-the-road school system. Added economic development is desired so we can broaden the tax base, reduce the burden on home owners and improve the schools. It's one issue.

Stratford has a unique economic development opportunity in the old Stratford Army Engine Plant. Soon to be cleaned up and turned over to the town from the Feds, we have a huge plot of land at the mouth of the Housatonic River with a beautiful view of Long Island Sound and Milford's Devon coastline. The town should be able to get some cash, followed by taxes on a premium, mixed use development along with additional public spaces which will further improve quality of life.

Regarding the party in power vs. the opposition, we have an interesting situation going on. We have a Democrat and two Republicans running, along with an independant. One Republican won his primary, the other skipped the primary and got on the ballot by petitioning. The petitioning Republican is lying and calling himself an independant candidate, but his campaign is really the Republican party in exile : the candidate is a registered Republican who eight years ago ran and lost as the Republican candidate for the top-of-the-ticket, his campaign is run by the former Republican Town Committee Chairman, and he is supported by many Republicans who don't like the guy who won their primary. The candidate who won the Republican primary is an outsider who didn't even register to vote until he wanted to run for Mayor. He's performed a coup on the Republicans by eeking out a Primary win in a three-way race.

Anyway, all four candidates have never held elected office and all of them are taking shots at the current Republican administration. So I'll join in: the Republicans have a super majority on the town council, board of ed, and our three land use boards. They control everything. Democrats are virtually powerless. The Republicans wrote up an agenda and beyond appointing their spouses to a couple of comissions, they've accomplished absolutely nothing except raising taxes, cutting services, borrowing more money and closing a school. Well done. It must be hard to govern a town when you truly believe that government is ineffectual by nature.

Genghis Conn said...

Put another way, we have the big three issues which are really one issue: property taxes, education and economic development.

This is an excellent point. Many candidates separate these issues out. They are perfectly willing to talk about taxes, for example, while ignoring economic development and education.

Quinn said...

I find Avon to be one of the better run towns around. Even though the budget referendums are always painful, they work. Democracy works. Progress is made, as when the High School referendum sailed through this summer (my first time voting, too).

This is, because, the majority of Avonites are politically and civically active. They don't need to be told how to vote by commercials, but they do discuss it with friends. Do they vote along Party lines for local candidates? Yes, and that means Republicans are most definitely in power. But each faction looks out for its own interests. The Elderly vote against big budgets and tax hikes, and parents vote for school increases. This generally strikes a balance so that big unnecessary projects are vetoed, but necessary spending is passed. Even big necessary spending is passed, as people understood that even raising taxes to pay for the High School expansion would pay dividends in property values down the road.

MikeCT said...

Some muncipal election and issue resources:

* Listing of mayor and first selectman candidates from Secretary of State's office
* A statewide schedule of upcoming municipal candidate forums sponsored by the League of Women Voters
* Web sites of mayor & first selectman candidates and Dem town committees
* Democratic local events and meetings
* CT Conference of Municipalities
* City and town sites