Charter changes, sewer renovation: Voters will judge 12 ballot questions

A smorgasbord of ballot questions will be on voters’ Election Day menu Nov. 6: A $48 million sewer plant renovation, two amendments to the state constitution, and nine Ridgefield charter revision proposals — including the hotly debated separation of the Inland Wetlands Board from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Both state constitutional questions are on the front of the ballot — along with 37 candidates for 11 different offices, representing eight political parties.

The Ridgefield charter changes are on the back, with the $48-million sewer plant renovation, labeled “WPCA Referendum” (WPCA for Water Pollution Control Authority).

“It’s a big ballot, when you look at it,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “The good news: They’ve gotten it down to front and back. At one point, there were multiple pages.”

Constitutional questions

The ballot questions start at the far right of the ballot’s front side, with the two state constitutional issues.

Question 1 would amend the Constitution of the State of Connecticut to ensure that money in the state’s Special Transportation Fund is used only for transportation projects and purposes — highway and public transportation projects, operating the Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Transportation, paying off transportation debt. (Money in the Special Transportation Fund comes from fuel taxes, transportation-related fees and motor vehicle fines, and also state sales and use taxes.)

Question 2 would amend the constitution to tighten procedures — increasing accountability and public input — when the state legislature seeks to sell, swap or give away real estate such as state land or buildings, including state parks. State agencies could still, as now, sell property through procedures defined in state statutes. The amendment requires both a public hearing and a separate act of the legislature — meaning it can’t be rolled into a larger bill — for “the transfer, sale or disposition of state-owned or state-controlled real property.” If the property is controlled by the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) — the agencies that hold state parks — the legislation to sell or transfer it requires approval by two-thirds votes in both houses of the state legislature.

Ridgefield’s Conservation Commission voted to support Question 2, tightening procedures for the sale of state property.

Name changes

Questions 3 through 11 are proposals the Charter Revision Commission developed after months of hearings and study.

Question 3 pertains to making technical and administrative changes, mainly eliminating language that specifies the length of time various department heads and non-elected administrative officers serve, saying instead they “shall serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority” — in most cases the Board of Selectmen.

The administrative changes also include a revised description of the town Pension Commission’s responsibilities.

This charter change also updates several name references to be compatible with changes made by the town or state statutes: “Plan of Development” becomes “Plan of Conservation and Development.” The “Commission for the Disabled” would be the “Commission for Accessibility.” The “Economic Development Commission” becomes the “Economic and Community Development Commission.”

Elections, appointments

Question 4 asks to amended the charter to provide that no person shall be eligible to run for more than one elective office at the same election “where the terms of such office overlap.”

This proposal was born of some confusion following the November 2017 election, when some candidates ran for and won election to more than one office — in some instances winning both two-year and four-year seats on the same board. Candidates victorious for multiple offices had to choose which seat they’d fill, and which they’d resign from, leaving vacancies to be filled by appointment. With the change, they can run for only one seat.

The overlap wording addresses the Zoning Board of Appeals, which has staggered terms of office. The wording would allow someone to fill a vacancy for a term that’s ending, and still be elected to a new term starting after that term has ended.

Question 5 asks voters if the town treasurer — currently elected every two years — should become an appointed position. The proposal would have the treasurer appointed by “the First Selectman, with the approval of the Board of Selectmen.”

Question 6 asks if the tax collector — also currently elected every two year — should become an appointed position by the first selectmen.

Budget

Question 7 asks, “Shall the Town Charter Sections 10-1 (a), (b) and (c) be amended to adopt a “Master Budget” schedule specifying the timing and process of the Budget Cycle?”

With this revision the charter would say “the Board of Finance, in consultation with the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education” must prepare each year an annual “Master Budget Schedule” setting out “budget formats and data” and “key activities and dates for the annual budget cycle” by the first Monday in November for the next year’s budget.

The process this schedule must accommodate includes the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen preparing separate budgets, and a capital budget, presented to the Board of Finance at a public hearing before the end of March. That budget must be posted on the town’s website at least four days before the hearing, and published in a local newspaper. The process allows Board of Selectmen time to review the Board of Education’’s budget and make a non-binding recommendation to the finance board. The approved budget is passed on for deliberation and voting at the Annual Town and Budget Meeting and, seven to 14 days later, the Budget Referendum.

Question 8 asks if the Town Meeting should be allowed to decrease or delete a line item of the Board of Selectmen’s budget, or the whole of the Board of Education, “so long as there are at least 2% of the qualified voters present at the start of the meeting?”

The charter currently requires that finance board send the town and school budgets to the Annual Town and Budget Meeting and then the budget referendum, and gives voters at the annual meeting the power to “decrease or delete any line item” — but not to increase or add to any budget lines.”

The charter revision constraints this power with language requiring that 2% of town voters — with a little over 18,000 voters, that’s about 365 — present at the meeting’s start for it to have budget-altering authority. The revision also adds language specifying the annual town meeting may “decrease or delete” line items in the Board of Selectmen’s budget while it may only “decrease as a whole without regard to any specific line item in the Board of Education’s budget.”

Question 9 deals with budget appropriations and transfers of unexpended capital project balances

This concerns money left over when voters have approved a specific amount of money for a construction project or equipment purchase, and then it’s accomplished for less. Under the proposed language the money left over can be appropriated or transferred “by the Board of Selectmen in consultation with the Board of Finance.” (The two boards have in the past argued over which one has this authority.)

The new charter language also dictates that these left over capital funds be used for “debt servicing,” for “other approved capital projects,” be paid into the “capital reserve fund” for future capital needs, or be assigned for “payment into the general fund” (which finances the town’s day to day operations).

Wetlands, ethics

Question 10 — should the Inland Wetlands Board separate from the Planning and Zoning Commission? — generated the most heated debate of any of this year’s charter changes proposals. The Conservation Commission, and an array of supporters, advocated the split on the grounds wetlands would be better protected by a board that had that mission as its sole focus. The Planning and Zoning Commission and its supporters argued the current combined wetlands board and P&Z commission had performed both duties with wisdom and efficiency, and would continue to do so. Although there was discussion of having an appointed wetlands board, the final proposal is for a separate seven-member elected Inland Wetlands Board.

Question 11 proposes a sun-setting of the ethics standards currently part of the charter, once a town meeting adopts an ethics code — which the selectmen are working on — as part of the town ordinances.

The Charter Revision Commission put forward a complete rewrite of the lengthy ethics code. The selectmen had some concerns, but with a deadline to get questions ready for the ballot bearing down on them, they didn’t feel they had enough time to review and propose changes they felt were needed. As a solution, the selectmen are proceeding to produce new ethics standards that will be put to a town meeting, and the Charter Revision Commission’s proposal included this ballot question, which will sunset the existing ethics rules when new ones become law.

Sewer plant project

Question 12, labeled “WPCA Referendum,” asks voters to authorize spending up to $48 million to renovate the town’s sewage treatment facilities, as required by the state environmental authorities and federal clean water regulations.

The project includes upgrading the village sewer plant on South Street, closing the plant at Routes 7 and 35, and pumping that wastewater to South Street for treatment.

The plant, now 28 years old, would be upgraded to meet the new standards for nitrogen and phosphorous in the wastewater discharged. These pollutants contribute to downstream water quality problems in the Long Island Sound, which has suffered from algae blooms and low-oxygen dead zones in the summer.

Most of the debate about the project concerned the cost, and how repayment of the bonds would be shared. Grants totaling $11.5 million are anticipated — if the project is approved on election day, in time for design to be completed and a contract signed by next July.

The grants would lower the $48-million price tag to about $36.5 million. Of this, $8 million would be repaid out of the town’s general tax revenues, and the bulk of the remainder would be covered by increased sewer use fees — which over time would about double — with a share also covered by increased dumping fees from septic system pumping trucks.

The Charter Revision Commission’s full report is available on the town’s website.

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