Wilton FY 2022 budget could see sharp increase

Next year's mill rate may be an unwelcome surprise to Wilton taxpayers.

Next year’s mill rate may be an unwelcome surprise to Wilton taxpayers.

Contributed photo

WILTON — An air of uncertainty is hanging over the upcoming town and education budgets.

That’s how First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith described the FY 2022 budget at a tri-board meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Board of Education and Board of Finance on Monday night.

“Uncertainty is the operative word,” Smith said.

Wilton taxpayers could be looking at a 4.8-percent mill rate increase for FY 2022, Vanderslice told the boards. The mill rate is the property tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value.

That increase would be quite a shift from the current FY 2021 budget which had a 3.77-percent lower mill rate from the previous year’s budget.

“The goal of this meeting is to work together to address what is expected to be a higher than usual FY 2022 mill-rate increase and one which may cause concern among residents,” Vanderslice said Monday night.

Uncertainty with costs and expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic, and economic conditions are driving factors with the upcoming budget.

The current budget is in good shape, despite additional costs arising from the pandemic.

On the town side, the selectmen are expecting a budget surplus of approximately $413,253, derived primarily from savings realized from switching the employees’ private healthcare provider to the state plan.

The education budget, on the other hand, is expected to be short $810,000 due to COVID-related expenses, such as the hiring of additional custodians and school personnel that weren’t in the original budget.

However, the finance board is sitting on a $2,969,160 budget reserve which could be used to cover the school board’s shortfall.

Pandemic concerns

“There are a lot of things we don’t know about FY 2022,” Vanderslice said. “We don’t know how long this pandemic will go on. When there will be a vaccine and how long it will take to get a sizable share of the community vaccinated. The state is going to have some pretty significant deficits they are going to have to deal with. We don’t know if people are going to be in a different financial situation as this pandemic continues. What’s going to happen to our local businesses and property values? That’s the big question,” she said.

As to the re-opening of schools this year, Smith said the district was charged by the state Department of Education to come up with three learning models — normal, hybrid and remote, resulting in additional costs in operations — and to keep the buildings clean and sanitized to prevent the spread of COVID.

Today, Smith said, both elementary schools are running on a normal model four days a week, and remotely one day a week to allow for school cleaning. The middle school and high school are operating on a hybrid model where two cohorts of students attend for two days a week each and remotely the rest.

How the schools will operate next year is unknown. “At this point, we don’t know if next year we will continue in this three-model approach,” Smith said. “Even if we have a vaccine, will we be able to bring all the students back?” he said.

Finance board chairman Jeff Rutishauser commended the boards for doing a good job with their planning and making “an extraordinary effort to keep the schools open.”

“I think this is going to be another COVID year,” he said, “I think people in town are still going to be having economic stress levels like they are having this year. So we have to be sensitive to the overall economic conditions in town as well,” he said.

“Things aren’t very easy to forecast,” said finance board member Stewart Koenigsberg. “I think it will be difficult to get a new vaccine rolled out and people are way too optimistic about where things are going,” he said.

Rutishauser said the finance board will devise a budget guidance for the boards to direct them with their FY 2022 budgets at its meeting on Nov. 10. At that time, the board will also discuss bonding and whether projects such as road paving should be put out to bond.