From Town Hall: The state looks to be the biggest challenge to our FY2020 budget

This year’s biggest budget challenges aren’t likely to be the Board of Education’s requested increase of 1.35% nor the Board of Selectmen’s of 0.92%. With those amounts, we might have been able to muscle through the impact of the grand list decline, but unfortunately this is also the year that we will see new challenges as the governor and the legislature develop the state’s budget.

The revalued grand list will be released next week. As with any revaluation, some residents will find their taxes going up, others down and some relatively flat. This year, the swings are likely to be wide with homes valued over  $1 million and those in North Wilton generally falling and those under $800,000 and those in South Wilton generally up. Whenever the impact is disproportional, there are some who will be hit particularly hard.

You all already know of the proposed bill to force school regionalization that, if approved, would have devastating impacts. Fortunately, the governor has indicated he does not support forced regionalization. Instead, he would like to incentivize voluntary regionalization. Could maintaining a town’s current level of educational assistance be that incentive? Using the state’s definition of educational assistance, Wilton received approximately $16.8 million last year: $14.7 million in pension contributions made on behalf of Wilton teachers, $1.6 million in a special education excess cost grant and just under $0.5 million in an educational cost sharing grant. If loss of assistance is the cost of independence, how much of our $16.8 million could we stand to lose? We’ll have to wait for the governor’s budget release on Wednesday to learn more.

We are also anxious to learn whether media reports are accurate and the governor will announce his support for a statewide vehicle property tax and a repeal of the town’s authority to tax vehicles. Last year, Wilton collected approximately $6 million in vehicle taxes. The proposal calls for the state to distribute the monies back to the towns and cities, but it is likely none would be coming back to Wilton. The loss of that amount of revenue would likely mean taxpayers would be faced with a decision between a double-digit mil rate increase or draconian cuts to the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen budgets or a combination of both.

The governor has also said he will be putting the state on a debt diet, something that we applaud as the previous level of bonding is and was not sustainable. The state provides the town with road-related reimbursement grants funded by bonded monies. Those grants are likely at risk. What we don’t know is whether previously approved monies, like those already authorized, but not bonded, for the remaining reimbursement for Miller-Driscoll or the grant for the pedestrian bridge, could have their authorization clawed back.

Part of the governor’s debt diet is addressing teacher pensions. Ever since Gov. Malloy proposed that municipalities assume a third of the cost of the state’s annual pension contribution, that risk has been hanging over us like a dark cloud waiting to release. To lose the vehicle tax revenue and at the same time be required to absorb a portion of the $14.7-million pension contribution would inflict a great deal of pain on many residents.

Lastly, there is the proposed bill to prohibit the use and purchase of turf fields. At last week’s public hearing on the measure in Hartford, even the sponsors didn’t seem to have an understanding whether it would require us to discontinue and remove our two turf fields, which were just installed at a cost of $1.3 million. It seems inconceivable that such would occur, but anything is possible in the current climate.

Fortunately, our representatives in Hartford have expressed their opposition to these proposals. I will be working with them to assist in that opposition and I encourage you to do the same. We can all accept that there will be pain all around if we are to address our state’s issues. The question is whether ours will be disproportional.

In the meantime, the Board of Selectmen will continue to act prudently and cautiously. At our last meeting, we decided to defer any decision on a long-term solution to the stadium track until these uncertainties are known. In the meantime, we will be making short-term repairs to ensure safe use of the track. We had previously questioned the scale of the proposed improvements to Fire Station 2 and requested that the Fire Commission reconsider the statement of requirements, which they are doing.

As I have often said, the best way for Wilton to position itself to absorb what is to come from Hartford, is to rethink everything and ensure we are operating efficiently and at the lowest cost possible. That continues to be our mission. Thank you.