Election Choices: What Does That Person Do?

by Christopher O'Brien

vote clipartLocal politics are often the most personal engagement with our democratic form of government any of us will ever encounter. A President, for instance, campaigns for office only through our television sets and airways and most of us will never meet a Presidential candidate. However, we might bump into our local leaders on a regular basis in  IGA, Dunkin Donuts, church or a school function on any day of the week. We know their faces, but are you aware of the decisions they make that impact your life every day?

In many respects, your local elected leaders have a larger impact than the President or Congress. When politicians run for higher office, they often get their start on the local level as well. You can’t run a country with trillions of dollar budgets without first understanding million dollar budgets impacting a few thousand residents.

When you go into the voting booth on November 5th, will you know what you are selecting a candidate to actually do? Or will you choose them simply by name or facial recognition? Are they the best candidate for the job, and if so, what qualities matches that job applicant for that particular office?

This article is intended to help voters understand how Wolcott’s government works, and who does what.We will begin with the least familiar offices first.

Constable

Three constables will be elected. Voters can choose any three of six candidates. A constable in Wolcott is largely a symbolic office, although four years ago there were proposals to have Constables issue court documents such as subpeonas. They are paid a small fee to do so and must attend training if Wolcott decided to employ constables to handle these tasks. Those fees are paid from the State of Connecticut.

Zoning Board of Appeals

When a home or business owner wants to construct a new building or addition, the drawings and proposal must be submitted to the town to make sure the structure meets the zoning laws of the town. Wolcott employs a building inspector to make sure that structures meet certain codes, as well as that they are set back a certain distance from property lines.
These plans are first submitted to a Planning and Zoning Board for approval. P&Z must make a decision based on the zoning code. This is a group of residents appointed by the Mayor. If the applicant is not satisfied by a denial of the PZB, they could appeal the decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The ZBA could decide that certain situations exist on a piece of property where an exception, or ‘variance’ can be made to permit a property owner to do something they normally could not. This elected board is tasked with making fair decisions in the best interests of the applicant, as well as their neighbors in the interest of safety and tranquil living.

Board of Assessment Appeals

If a taxpayer believes that a taxable piece of property was incorrectly assessed, they can appeal in front of the Board of Assessment Appeals to have the assessment changed. This property could be a building, land, or vehicle. For instance, if you believe you are paying too much tax on a 1990 Ford Taurus, then you could present evidence to the board to lower the tax rate.

Members of board have the power to change the assessment. They are given a small stipend for their service.

Board of Education

The Board of Education oversees Wolcott’s 5 schools, educational business office and our school superintendant. They are tasked with the largest budget in town with over 200 employees. The Board of Education sets the curriculum, chooses which text books and equipment is used to educate students, and negotiates and approves contracts with school- related unions.

They also hire and fire teachers, hear discipline hearings of students that commit serious offenses, and approve field trips.

To a great degere, the Board of Education has alot of power in Wolcott. On the other hand, much of what they do is also mandated by the State legislature or federal government and there are certain areas that they cannot change.

Because 2/3 of the Town’s budget goes to Education, the Board of Education has a great deal of influence over the town’s tax rate and budget. The Town Council cannot change any line item in the BOE’s budget when they approve the overal town’s budget.

In the past, many of Wolcott’s Board members have included former teachers, and the spouses or children of teachers. This issue sometimes comes up with voters decide who should serve on this important and powerful Board.

9 members will serve on the Board, although voters can only select 6 of 12 choices. Currently, there are 6 Republicans and 3 Democrats on the Board of Education.

Town Council

The Town Council is made up of 9 Councilmen who manage the finances and Town Budget each year. The Council can also pass ordinances from time to time. Wolcott currently has just less than 100 local ordinances. Town Councilmen work with the Mayor to ensure efficient management of the town and in many cases approve appointments and contracts to various boards, commissions, and department heads such as the Police Chief, Zoning Enforcement Officer and Assessor.

The Council is considered the legislative body of the town with Councilmen often soliciting input from residents to bring to meetings on various subjects.

During May, the Council weighs the priorities of town departments as it reviews the budget. In June it sets the tax rate, as well as the goal it wants the Tax Collector to collect from all available taxes levied.

Voters may vote for two candidates from each of the town’s three voting districts to be elected to the Council. While voters may cast up to six votes for Council, the top nine (three from each district) will be elected. This year, 13 candidates are running and four will not be seated.

Republicans currently have six members on the Council and Democrats three.

Tax Collector

The Tax Collector serves a four year term. They are charged to mail out all tax bills at the rate set by the Town Council. They also are expected to collect a certain percentage of all tax levied on the town- that number is often somwhere between 95 and 98.5%.

Tax Collectors must certainly be trustworthy to handle this job, and be fair to both the town and taxpayers to collect as much as possible. If they fall short, then there might not be enough money to pay the town’s bills.

At the same time, voters might want a tax collector who is firm but fair to taxpayers who are unable to pay their share of tax on time because of financial burdens or the economy. They cannot excuse any taxes, though. Any taxpayer who doesn’t pay their share is considered delinquent. A taxpayer may choose to seize and sell that delinquint person’s property so that the town can collect the owed amount.

How these jobs are performed sometimes become campaign issues.

Town Treasurer

The Town has a part-time Town Treasurer. This person has a variety of responsibilities. First, they must sign all check payments. Second, they manage the pension investments of the town to ensure that those pensions will benefit town employees when they retire. Third, they ensure that Town bank accounts are well invested. With a $50 million budget, Wolcott can sometimes see a return from certain accounts.

The current Town Treasurer, Roger Levesque, is retiring and three candidates are running for the seat.

Town Clerk

The Town Clerk has both customer service and administrative responsibilities. They are charged with orderly record keeping of all town documents. These are more than just the minutes of meetings, but also include real estate transactions dating back to the 1700s, records of births, deaths, and weddings in the town, and other legal documents.

Every year, the Town Clerk is responsibile for overgitht of fair elections, along with the Registrars of Voters. An equal number of registrars are elected by political parties, but the Town Clerk must certify that the results are fair and can be reported to the State.

Wolcott’s Town Clerk manages two assistants and grants dog, hunting and fishing licenses.

Mayor

The Mayor handles the day-to-day functioning of town government. Many of the above offices are managed by the Town Clerk, Tax Collector, but the rest are overseen by the Mayor. The Mayor appoints volunteers to various boards and commissions that oversee things like Parks, the library, Golf Course, Beach, and Economic Development.

Every day, the Mayor is responsible for an efficient operation of the Police Department, which is the second largest piece of town government after education. The Public Works department is responsible for all roads, highways and infrastructure like bridges and dams, as well as snow plowing and tree maintanance. The Senior Center, Youth Center and coordinating other facets of life in Wolcott also come into his office.

Every year, new challenges often confrot the mayor, such as flooded roads, and opportunities to improve a growing town.

One area that the Mayor does not oversee is the Education Department, although he may have resources that assist the education department to do their jobs, including plowing school driveways and parking lots.

This year, three people are running for Mayor.

Did we miss something? E-mail us: WolcottWhisper@gmail.com

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