August 17, 2006
NONRESIDENT PROPERTY OWNERS' ELIGIBILITY TO VOTE ON A TOWN BUDGET
By: Kristin Sullivan, Associate Analyst
You asked about the law allowing individuals who do not reside in a town, such as Stafford, to vote on its budget. Specifically you want to know whether (1) it is a state law, (2) a town has the authority to raise the $1,000 threshold contained within it, and (3) nonresident property owners' voting rights have been challenged in court. You also want to know if Massachusetts and Rhode Island have similar laws.
Section 7-6 of the Connecticut General Statutes, not local law, authorizes United States citizens who own property in a Connecticut town and are liable for taxes of at least $1,000 on the property to vote at town meetings. The law applies to a town with a town meeting form of government, unless a special act directs otherwise, and whether or not the property owners are residents. A town with a town meeting form of government generally passes its budget at its annual budget meeting. Thus, nonresidents who owe property taxes in an amount that equals or exceeds the minimum threshold are qualified to vote. (However the law prohibits nonresidents from voting at a town's regular or special election.)
Since state law allows nonresident property owners to vote at town meetings, towns do not have the authority to raise the $1,000 threshold. Only the General Assembly may do so.
There have been no cases in Connecticut that challenge the $1,000 minimum threshold or nonresident property owners' voting rights. However, nonresident property owners have initiated several lawsuits after being precluded from voting. One case, Massad v. City of New London, serves as precedent limiting the circumstances under which nonresident property owners may vote on a charter town's budget if the charter contains a residency requirement for voting eligibility (43 Conn.Supp. 297, affirmed 36 Conn.App. 584 (1995)).
In contrast to Connecticut, neither Massachusetts nor Rhode Island allows nonresident property owners to vote on a town budget. To qualify to vote on a budget or other matters at a town meeting in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, an individual must be a town resident (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. §§ 39-10 and 51-1 and R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 17-1-2 (13), 17-1-3, 17-1-3.1, and 45-3-6).
MASSAD V. CITY OF NEW LONDON
The plaintiffs were nonresident owners of property in New London who owed at least $1,000 in property taxes. On June 15, 1992, at its regular meeting, the city council approved a budget and tax rate ordinance that set the mill rate for the city. On June 29, 1992, a petition was filed with the city clerk to repeal the ordinance or request that it be submitted to the electors by referendum. The plaintiffs and other nonresident property owners signed the petition. On June 30, 1992, the council voted to conduct a referendum. On July 7, 1992, the plaintiffs sought to register to vote on the referendum, which was scheduled for August 11, 1992. The registrars of voters denied the petition because of the New London charter provision stipulating that electors be residents of the municipality.
The plaintiffs brought an action in Superior Court against the City of New London, its registrars of voters, and its city counselors challenging the denial of their petition to vote on a town budget referendum and tax rate ordinance. The parties made cross motions for summary judgment, which identified the following issues: whether the (1) budget referendum called by the defendants constituted a town meeting under CGS § 7-6 and (2) defendants violated the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution or Article First, Section 20 of the Connecticut Constitution by refusing to allow the plaintiffs to vote on a budget referendum and tax rate ordinance.
Holding and Reasoning of the Court
The Superior Court denied the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. It held that the (1) referendum did not constitute a “town meeting” within the meaning of CGS § 7-6 regarding entitlement to vote and (2) city's residency requirement for voters in referendum did not violate the equal protection provisions of the state or federal constitutions.
On December 6, 1994 the plaintiffs appealed the summary judgment claiming that the trial court incorrectly determined that the defendants' actions did not violate the equal protection clauses. But on January 17, 1995, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court's ruling.
Though the plaintiffs owned property in New London and met the $1,000 threshold in CGS § 7-6, the trial court found, and the Appellate Court agreed, that a rational basis existed for city excluding nonresidents from voting in the budget referendum and tax rate ordinance and thus, the residency requirement did not violate nonresident property owners' equal protection rights. The court found that residents had greater individual interests in the city's development and welfare than nonresidents, and nonresidents would be likely to vote for a lower tax rate due to their lack of personal and direct benefit from town expenditures. The court reasoned:
The New London charter provides in article II, § 6: 'Every elector of this state, qualified to vote in the town of New London, residing within the territorial limits of the city of New London and registered according to law shall have the right to vote at all city elections.' It also provides in article IV, §§ 30-34, and article V, §§ 35-38, relating to referendums and referendum petitions, respectively, that referendums are to be submitted to the electors.
'Elector' means any person possessing the qualifications prescribed by the constitution and duly admitted to, and entitled to exercise, the privileges of an elector in a town….' General Statutes § 9-1(e). Article sixth, § 1, as amended by Article IX of the Connecticut Constitution prescribes the qualifications of electors to embrace: 'Every citizen of the United States who has attained the age of eighteen years, who is a bona fide resident of the town in which he seeks to be admitted as an elector and who takes such oath, if any, as may be prescribed by law, shall be qualified to be an elector.'
Thus, it is evident from a reading of the city charter, in combination with the statutes and the state constitution, that there are no provisions for non-resident, 'qualified taxpayers, such as the plaintiffs here, to vote in town elections, regular or special, or in referendum measures of any sort, whether on appropriations, budgets, authorization of the sale, or purchase or lease of any land or setting a tax rate (pgs. 306-307).