You are much more likely to spot your town’s mayor at your local grocery store than President Obama. If a pothole develops on your street, you’ll probably call your local town hall to get it fixed. When a traffic accident happens in town, an officer of the local police department will probably be the first responder on the scene. Parents put their kids on the school bus in the morning so they can go to the local public school.
On Nov. 5, most cities and towns in Connecticut will hold municipal elections to choose the mayor you see in the grocery store, the Town Council that approves the budget for public works, the Board of Selectmen that oversees the police department, and the Board of Education that administers the public schools.
But if recent history is any guide, most Connecticut residents will choose not to participate in these elections. According to the Secretary of the State, just 30.82 percent of those registered actually voted in their local elections in 2011. In contrast, almost 74 percent of eligible voters — more than 1.5 million people — cast their ballots during the 2012 Presidential election for federal and state offices they probably need less often than their local officials.
Here are five reasons local elections are more important than you think:
According to the Office of Policy and Management, local governments spent more than $12 billion in fiscal year 2010-11 and the vast majority of that money, about $9 billion, came from local property taxpayers. If you own a home, a business, or other property (like your vehicle, for example), you are one of those taxpayers. Property taxes are a tax that people love to hate but, unless you’ve paid off your mortgage, it can be easy to forget you actually pay these taxes every year.
Put it in a different way. The people chosen on Nov. 5 will decide how that $12 billion, or roughly 5 percent of the state’s total economy, will be spent. Choosing who will be at the table to make those decisions is wildly important.
Of the $12 billion spent by local governments, $7.29 billion of that money goes to public education. There are 1,165 public schools in Connecticut educating 569,237 students, according to the State Department of Education. This is a massive system that touches nearly every citizen in Connecticut, either as taxpayers, parents, employees, or students. Yet every community is different, confronting unique opportunities and challenges. Policy decisions made in this arena impact everyone and can certainly change entire lives.
3. Public Safety
In most communities, there is only one group of highly organized, trained, and in some cases heavily armed citizens: The men and women of the local police force. They wield legal powers that are off-limits to most citizens. They can put you in jail, search your car, or subject you to questioning about where you’ve been, where you are going, and why you are going there.
The police play an important and valuable role in preserving public order and ensuring safety. But as has been seen recently, the sole possession of such awesome power can be accompanied with abuses. Last week a federal jury convicted two East Haven police officers, Dennis Spaulding and David Cari, of violating the civil rights of Latinos by “stopping and harassing Latinos without reason, sometimes punching, slapping and kicking them while they were handcuffed.”
Oversight of the police force is a major responsibility of local officials. They serve as a vital check and balance on the power of the police to ensure that laws are enforced in a fair and responsible way. When they fail to provide appropriate oversight, trouble soon follows.
Anyone that has experienced a Connecticut winter knows the importance of local government after a heavy snowfall. While state trucks may be tasked with opening the highways or state roads, the trucks with “Town of . . .” painted on the side are most warmly received by residents. The arrival of those trucks usually signals the ability to finally get to the gas station or grocery store. Paying for those trucks and ensuring their efficient deployment is a job of the local officials that will be elected on Nov. 5.
Though citizens interact with local government for everything from dog licenses to marriage licenses, it can often be most challenging to get information about local government. Electing local officials committed to communicating with citizens is the most effective way of knowing what is going on in town and holding local government accountable.
Local elections will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5, and polling locations will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. across the state. The Secretary of the State has a voter registration lookup on their website to find your polling place. Be sure to check with the registrar of voters in your town if you have any questions about your eligibility to vote or if you need additional assistance.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com