Wilton pauses on budgets while other towns make cuts

WILTON — While other towns have been working on cutting their municipal and/or school budgets, Wilton is adopting a wait-and-see attitude on what will ultimately be presented.

During a tri-board meeting Thursday night, April 9, among members of the boards of selectmen, education and finance, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said she believes the town is running far enough in the black this fiscal year to cover any expenses due to the COVID-19 pandemic through June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

The Board of Finance will review both the education and municipal budgets and get back to the respective boards by May 1 with any feedback. It has also pegged its May 12 meeting as the one where it will settle on a preliminary budget and mill rate. That will give the public two weeks to comment before the June 4 deadline for adoption of a budget.

While effects of the school shutdown and the depressed business climate on the fiscal year 2021 budgets are not known, Board of Finance chair Jeff Rutishauser and member Peter Balderston expressed concern about taxpayers’ ability to pay their tax bills — let alone their other expenses — in the event they have lost their jobs or businesses.

“It’s early days to try to understand the impact this will have on the economy in general,” Balderston said, adding he heard earlier that day that only 69 percent of mortgages [nationally] had been paid on time this month.

“I don’t know how that is going to impact us locally. … We have time to understand what the impact of that is on our taxpayers,” he said.

“There’s no business as usual here,” he continued. “I just don’t think we know the extent of what the damage is going to be when you shut down the economy or a big part of it. All you have to do is drive around town to see how things have changed. How that’s going to impact us financially — the good news is we have until early June to estimate what that means, in my perspective, to the taxpayer — how many people will have lost their jobs and what that means for our collection rate for taxes. … I think we have to be very vigilant about how this might impact us locally.”

Vanderslice said the state has been unable up to this point to break down unemployment rates by town and she is afraid there won’t be good data coming before decisions need to be made.

“We tax wealth in property taxes but people pay their taxes with income,” Rutishauser said, adding that while appraised property values will not be affected in the coming year, incomes may very well be.

“Their ability to pay taxes depends on whether they are employed or not, or what happened to their business. Those are the kinds of things we have to wrestle with,” he said, adding it will be a topic the board will look at during its meeting on Tuesday, April 14.

“We’re going to have to make some educated guesses on how well people will be able to pay their tax bill, both for the first six months and come January,” he added.

Board of Finance member Mike Kaelin said it would be helpful for the board to receive factual — rather than anecdotal — information about peoples’ financial situations.

“I am asking for specific factual information about how the current health crisis has impacted people financially in Wilton,” he said when asked to expand on his request. “However, I am not asking people to disclose their personal financial information or anyone else’s personal financial information.

“I am only asking people to tell us if they actually know of taxpayers in Wilton who have lost their jobs or otherwise their ability to pay taxes as the result the current health crisis without identifying any of them. I understand we have no real way of knowing how much we can rely on this information, but it is better than having no information,” he said.

People may contact the Board of Finance at boardoffinance@wiltonct.org. The other boards may be reached at boardofselectmen@wiltonct.org and boe@wiltonps.org.

Selectman Josh Cole said officials will also have to take into account the commercial tax base. Commercial landlords, he said, are getting letters from tenants looking for rent abatements of 60 to 120 days.

As per the governor’s order, the Board of Selectmen will have to offer either a tax deferral program or low-interest rate program for taxes due July 1. Options are being examined and a proposal will be brought to the board at its meeting on April 21.

One aspect of the budget, mentioned at the tri-board meeting, that will come under future discussion is that of debt service. Vanderslice said debt service is scheduled to go down, but if the town goes forward with planned projects it would come back up in the next year.

“I think that’s something we definitely have to look at, the Board of Selectmen talking with the Board of Finance on those future year projects,” she said.

Rutishauser said debt service is about 7 percent of the budget. “Good government” guidelines suggest it account for no more than 10 percent.

Other towns

Some of Wilton’s neighboring towns are not waiting to see the effects of the pandemic and are reviewing or making cuts to their budgets now.

Weston’s Board of Finance expressed discomfort with a projected mill rate increase of 1.39 percent.

“I think it’s incumbent on our three boards to figure out how we can get this down to zero,” board member Jeffrey Farr said at a meeting on Tuesday, April 7.

To get to a flat mill rate increase would require $1 million in reductions between the town and schools budget. Board of Education chairman Tony Pesco cautioned against it.

“We’ve done the scenarios down to flat,” he said. “We know where the next cut is going to be, which is going to be teachers.”

In New Canaan, the Town Council cut $1.43 million from the schools budget, with those favoring the cut attributing it, at least in part, to the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic. The budget now stands at $81.1 million. While the Board of Education will decide where to make the cuts, that amount would have paid for additional buses to enable a later start time at the high school.

The Westport Board of Finance cut $1.3 million from its Board of Education’s proposed budget of $123 million on April 1. That budget was a 4.24-percent increase over the current budget. The main drivers were facilities improvements and the reopening of a middle school.

D.J. Simmons and John Kovach contributed to this story.