Ridgewood is one of only 39
districts in the state, and 15 in the county, to retain April elections since state law began allowing the switch in 2012.
“I am very much in favor of voters having voices in April,” said resident Sally Brandes at the opening of public comment on the issue. She pointed to a budget that has grown “astronomically” and yet remained the only balance sheet still subject to voter approval. “If I had my way, we’d be voting on municipal budgets as well.”
As a populace, however, the village has turned out in sparse numbers for the balloting, with only 12 percent of registered voters coming to the polls this April. Though the seats on the board were uncontested, a $91 million budget was on the ballot, and the cost of operating the election was more than $42,000.
“The money spent on the election is insignificant compared to the budget,” noted Leonard Eisen, in support of keeping the April vote.
If the change is made, residents would not vote on the budget unless it exceeded the state’s statutory 2 percent cap. Costs in excess of the cap by law could only be new spending items that the district has not had in past budgets.
Only the spending in excess of the cap would be voted on, so the rejection of new spending would not require the board to rework the rest of the budget.
A district goal adopted by the board last month also requires the administration to scrutinize "cost centers" and present budget options that might keep spending beneath the cap. Multiple residents who spoke in favor of moving the election pointed to the cap as keeping budgets down, with or without voter scrutiny.
Fishbein noted that 61 of the last 68 budget referendums in Ridgewood have been approved, and that hearings and presentations – though perhaps not as many – would continue to give residents input in the process.
“There will still be public review of the budget,” he said. “It’s mandatory.”
Both the superintendent and members of the board emphasized the attention to public opinion that they have paid in deciding on the switch. According to Fishbein, in conversations with colleagues he has found no similar public hearing held on the issue, and “little to no” backlash against boards that have taken the decision on themselves.
And some on the board remained uneasy about the possibility of taking the vote on the budget away from taxpayers.
“My heart and my gut says ‘No, I can’t take that away from another citizen,’” said board member Christina Krauss, who said she was "struggling" with the issue and acknowledged the fiscal benefits of the move.
Board member Jim Morgan said that from a managerial standpoint, the move presents clear savings in both the costs of operating elections and the time spent by administrators in giving presentations to voters. But still, he said, “You have five members who are torn about taking away the vote.”
The board has discussed hiring a pollster to further gauge the importance of the vote to residents. If the switch is made, the policy would be revisited every four years, but the board on Monday night remained cautious in proceeding.
“We want to have a conversation,” said Board President Sheila Brogan. “Because that’s part and parcel of Ridgewood.”
Correction: The comment made by resident Leonard Eisen was incorrectly attributed in a previous version of this article. The story has been updated to correct the error.