Wilton finance board tells town, schools to consider flat to minus 10-percent budgets

Before the pandemic changed everything, Board of Finance members Jeff Rutishauser, Michael Kaelin and Stewart Koenigsberg look over Board of Education documents on Feb. 6.

Before the pandemic changed everything, Board of Finance members Jeff Rutishauser, Michael Kaelin and Stewart Koenigsberg look over Board of Education documents on Feb. 6.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — In a quick half-hour meeting on Tuesday, April 21, the Board of Finance agreed to ask the board of education and selectmen to consider cuts that would range from no increase over last year’s appropriated amounts to as much as a 10-percent reduction each.

In a 5-0 vote, chair Jeff Rutishauser and members Michael Kaelin, Peter Balderston, Chris Stroup and Stewart Koenigsberg agreed to ask both boards to outline what services would be lost in each of four scenarios: a 0-percent increase, 2-percent decrease, 5-percent decrease and 10-percent decrease.

Before the pandemic hit Connecticut, the Board of Selectmen had adopted a $33.9 million budget for 2021, an increase of 1.22 percent over this year’s budget of $32.5 million. The Board of Education adopted an $84-million budget, a 2.58-percent increase over the current budget of $81.8 million.

At the meeting’s outset, Rutishauser floated the idea of three scenarios, ranging from 0 percent to 2- and 5-percent decreases.

It was Stroup who offered the more severe scenario of minus 10 percent.

“I am still unclear how we will finance ourselves if we are disappointed in revenue collections,” he said.

Kaelin had a number of concerns. He said he wants to make sure that taxpayers understand “what we’re talking about now in terms of what the budgets are is not the same thing as what the mill rate is going to be and what the residents will get taxed.

“Personally,” he added, “I’m not contemplating an increase in anyone’s taxes this year. … I want the public to understand in the clearest way, if you reduce budgets what services are you going to lose.”

To that end, he questioned the value of going as far as 5 or 10 percent.

“If the voters saw what services they would lose at 5 percent or 10 percent we’re not even going to be able to consider it. If we want to make this a useful tool, something that is within the realm of what I think is possible, I think we should have the ranges closer together,” he said.

That is when Stroup explained why he asked for the minus-10-percent scenario, “not that I would support it,” he said.

“What if we get to October, November and December and our collections are substantially less than our long-term expected collections?”

Assuming the town eventually collects all the real estate taxes it assesses at whatever level is finally decided upon, “I’m concerned about how we finance the intermediate term, something that goes beyond the three-month stress test, something that extends maybe even beyond the term of 10, I just don’t know what happens when the bank account runs to zero and so I would like to understand what the process is to manage that stress scenario,” he said.

“What would it mean to services in town in the next year or so if we just didn’t collect the taxes we anticipated, meaning the taxes over time we will collect. I’m much more anxious about the 12- or 24-month deferral or delay in collection of taxes.”

Rutishauser called it a “black swan event,” adding “we will collect the money and find ways to bridge the cash flow if there really is a fall off, but it would be interesting to see what a 10-percent reduction from today would be. I think a lot of people would look at it and say it’s cutting really deeply into services we value.”

At that point, Anne Kelly-Lenz, the chief financial officer for the town and schools, warned the board there is a minimum budget requirement for the school district. She could not provide specific numbers, but said there is a point below which state law prohibits any cuts.