Wilton finance board works through budgets but no decisions made
WILTON — There was a general consensus among members of the Board of Finance that taxes should not be raised in the coming fiscal year, but at their meeting on Tuesday night they did not settle on a budget or mill rate to present to the public. However, at the end of the evening, it appeared a mill rate decrease in the vicinity of 4 percent was possible.
The board plans to meet again on Thursday to further the discussion.
A good portion of the meeting on May 12 was spent discussing the budget scenarios the board asked of the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice went through the reductions needed to achieve a flat budget compared to this fiscal year’s adopted budget, and to achieve reductions of 2, 5 and 10 percent.
To achieve those savings from the selectmen’s original budget request of $33.9 million the following cuts would need to be made:
Flat budget — $409,801.
Minus 2 percent — $1.08 million.
Minus 5 percent — $2.08 million.
Minus 10 percent — $3.8 million.
Details of the reductions may be viewed at https://www.wiltonct.org/sites/wiltonct/files/agendas/bos_reductions_may_12_0.pdf.
Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith reviewed some of the $1.6 million in cuts the Board of Education agreed on to achieve a flat budget. The Board of Education had proposed a budget of $84 million for fiscal year 21 and pared that down to $82.3 million. A letter Smith sent to the Board of Finance outlining those reductions may be read at https://www.wiltonct.org/sites/wiltonct/files/agendas/board_of_education_proposed_fy21_budget_051120_rev2.pdf.
He also discussed a budget with a 1.5-percent reduction, the maximum allowed under the Minimum Budget Requirement Law, which prohibits towns from reducing education budgets beyond a certain amount. Achieving that reduction would require a cut of $2.8 million, including 5.5 staff members. Going any lower would jeopardize state grants.
Further reductions would cut more severely into personnel. A 5-percent reduction would result in a reduction of 36.5 staff members and a 10-percent reduction would cut 78.5 staff members.
Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser asked each member to say which budget scenario they supported.
Mike Kaelin, who supported a flat budget for both the town and schools, said his main concern was providing for the health, safety and well-being of all residents.
“Given this unprecedented crisis that we’re facing and the dramatic needs and costs we’re going to have, how do we make ourselves stronger as a town by reducing the mill rate,” he asked.
“In a crisis such as we’re facing we need more services not less services,” he said. He supports the flat town budget because it is achieved through savings that do not greatly affect essential services. The one area he disagreed with was the cut to the library’s grant. When people are out of work and looking for a job, he said he considers the library an essential service, even though it is not classified as such by the state.
Vanderslice said the library will not be among those establishments reopening on May 20, and as yet there is no direction on when it may open. “Their costs could decrease if they can’t open for six months,” she said in reference to the proposed cut in the grant the town provides.
As for the school budget, Kaelin said, “I think it’s critical to life getting back to normal … it’s vital to our economy to get kids back in school.”
Chris Stroup said he would like a definitive recommendation from the Board of Selectmen on which budget scenario it preferred, but he chose a flat budget for both the town and schools. He also said he did not think Vanderslice should take a $30,000 pay cut as she has volunteered to do.
Stewart Koenigsberg said his vote is to generally support flat budgets “but my angst around this is I don’t want to cut services.”
Looking to other towns he said they were not cutting their services or school budgets.
“I think we should remain competitive,” he said.
Kevin Gardner said he was almost persuaded to go for the 2-percent decrease in the town budget but that overall the cuts were too deep. He did not want to cut the library budget. He also was in favor of a flat education budget.
Rutishauser opted for a town budget with a 2-percent decrease, although there were areas he’d like to “lighten up.” He also opted for a flat school budget.
Peter Balderston was the only member who voted for greater cuts on both budgets. He was in favor of cutting the town budget by 5 percent with the proviso that if more money were needed later in the year the board could “claw back some of that money” with a special assessment.
Given that the school budget is showing a $3-million surplus this fiscal year and with the “incredible uncertainty” facing the town, Balderston said he was in favor of the 1.5-percent reduction in school spending.
The board also discussed other items that factor into the mill rate.
The first was money expected from the state. Wilton has been promised about $1.3 million and Vanderslice said she was very sure the town would see at least $800,000 and that amount could be put into the revenue side of the budget. If the town gets more, it would go back to taxpayers the following year. There are also funds to cover a shortfall.
Another item was the tax collection rate. Last year’s collection rate was 99.2 percent and it was comparable in 2010 during the recession.
Vanderslice said her main concern was mortgage servicers making tax payments when they are not collecting mortgage payments due to allowances in the CARES Act. This enables people suffering a financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic to request a forbearance for up to 180 days.
“I’m not worried about July [payments]. The question is January,” she said. Both residential and commercial tax payments could be affected.
Still, members agreed people will make paying their property taxes a priority.
“People are not going to let their home go,” Koenigsberg said. “Unless they are already underwater on their house, they’re not going to walk away.”
To be conservative, the board considered reducing the collection rate to 98 or 98.5 percent, but did not make a final decision.
The fund balance is also an open question. With all the savings, the fund balance will swell to $20 million in June, Vanderslice said. To maintain its Aaa credit rating, the town needs to reserve 10 percent of its budget or $12.8 million.
That and how much the finance board will keep in its Charter Authority — funds the finance board holds in reserve that it can release for unanticipated expenses — will be one of the issues for further discussion.
There was a tentative agreement that Vanderslice would call a meeting of the Board of Selectmen for Thursday to get a consensus on which budget scenario members would support to be followed by a meeting of the Board of Finance. No times were set, but the meetings and instructions on how to view them will be posted at wiltonct.org.
Members of the public may continue to email the Board of Finance members at email@example.com.