Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Referendum Blowback: Marmer to Vernon -- “Let’em eat cake!”

Mayors and other keepers of the public purse have made an art of punishing presumptuous voters who deny them funds in referendums.

Taking a page from then Governor Lowell Weicker, who threatened to close state parks if he did not get sufficient votes in the state legislature to pass his income tax proposal, Mayor Ellen Marmer of Vernon closed the iconic War Memorial Tower on Fox Hill, a structure built by the Works Projects administration during the depression, after the naughty citizens of her town pared back her budget in three referendums.

On a fourth try, the town realized an increase of about 3% on its previous budget, a $2 million increase – enough, reasoned the Journal Inquirer, to maintain operations on the war memorial tower. Over in Tolland, where citizens persuaded the town fathers to reduce their proposed expenditures in a fourth referendum, a zero-increase budget finally was passed after the town poobahs somewhat arrogantly scheduled a second referendum without adjusting their first submittal, possibly because they thought public was either deaf, blind or dumb.

But Vernon takes the cake in the arrogance contest.

After Marmer closed the tower – saving a grand total of $1,300 – a white knight appeared who offered to supply the funds if the lady would relent and reopen the structure.

Eric Santini, a local businessman, said the arches of the tower and its rough hewn stone reminded him of similar towers in Italy. In a somewhat formal ceremony, Santini presented the mayor with a check. Mayor Marmer said, “We’re very fortunate to have civic minded citizens to keep our town symbol open.” The unfortunate implication of the mayor’s less than gracious remark is that the town was not as fortunate to have a mayor that closed the tower, possibly as an object lesson to those less civic minded citizens who voted down her budgets – three times.

To Mr. Santini's credit, he coughed up the money but did not hold back in his remarks.

According to an account in the Rockville Reminder, Mr. Santini said, “We didn’t think it was right to close the tower for reasons like this.” Allowing for the frustration some people may have had with the budget, Mr. Santini said, “… to take it out on the tower, it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

In a stinging editorial, the JI contended that Marmer had sold out to the unions:

Sadly, the judgment of the townspeople on how much they can afford to pay in town property taxes in hard times - an opinion that apparently was deeply held in Vernon this year, judging from the budget referendums - simply cannot be brought to bear on the biggest single expense of town government.

“While the symbol of the town could have been saved by just a little restraint on employee compensation - a mere $1,300 of restraint in a budget in which hundreds of thousands of dollars in raises were to be paid - the town government could not extract it and would not even try.

“In the case of Vernon, even the symbol of the town became expendable.

“In Connecticut today a town's welfare is no longer the first purpose of town government; town government's first purpose is to satisfy its own employees.”

Having alienated the affections of one major paper, hard pressed taxpayers in Vernon and one generous, patriotic and brutally honest doner, Marmer has chosen to lead her party's ticket in the next municipal elections.

Good luck with that.

State Republicans could offer a principled resistance to the kind of arrogance that apparently has found a home in the thinking and allegiances of mayors like Marner, but it is doubtful the state GOP has the political stomach to mount such an opposition against well organized interests that have appropriated a large chunk of the public purse to fatten their own salaries – even though, as the JI correctly suggests, Democrat politicians have long passed the reasonable tolerance levels of most state taxpayers.

The Republicans should be stumping for a state referendum on budgets. In the absence of sturdy principles, municipal referendums are the last remaining firewall against reckless spending.
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