$92M proposed school spending poses budget challenge in Wilton

Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice wants to keep the town's overall budget increase to 2 percent while facing a large bump in proposed school spending.

Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice wants to keep the town's overall budget increase to 2 percent while facing a large bump in proposed school spending.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice faces a nearly $92 million hurdle in her plan for a 2-percent tax increase this year.

Earlier this month, Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith presented a $91.9 million budget that poses a 6 percent increase, which he says is the most in his 10 years with the district.

While Vanderslice said last fall the Board of Finance was projecting a 4-percent increase to the town's mill rate, based on Smith's new $91.9-million proposal, the 28.29 mill rate would instead likely go up by between 5 and 6 percent.

"Even before the budget goes up next year, people are likely to see an increase in their taxes," Vanderslice said.

Smith said this was by far the largest increase he has advocated for in his 10-year tenure, but cited increases to salaries and benefits as the driving force.

The proposed $91,869,768 school budget is a $5,191,906 increase over this year's $86,677,862 budget.

For the fourth time in five years, Vanderslice said residents will be surveyed regarding increased taxes in relation to amenities. The three past surveys, she noted, found that a larger portion of residents were not in favor of higher taxes.

"One would think it wasn't going to be much dissimilar when they do it again," she said.

Selectman Ross Tartell said the survey questions contained "a certain inherent bias," as no one was logically in favor of increasing taxes.

"No one wants more taxes, especially in a high-inflationary environment," he said.

Vanderslice said, however, some people were in favor of them.

"Chris Stroup has stated he supports higher taxes and higher spending on the Board of Ed ... I've heard him say it many times," she said of the Board of Finance member.

"But I agree," she said. "Most people in this town don't want to pay any more taxes."

Vanderslice said she reached out to Smith after his presentation, offering to help him go after some grant money for security cameras in tandem with the town.

Grant money, she said, has played a key role in the town avoiding debt over the past three years, with $26 million in various grants helping to avoid $1.8 million in debt service since 2019.

"That's real money," she said.

Vanderslice said, however, that some future state grant money may be in jeopardy, owing to several legislative bills under consideration in Hartford. While she noted they are still in a very preliminary stage, some — including a proposed bill relating to affordable housing — could result in the loss of discretionary transportation grants down the road.

"That's pretty concerning to us," she said, with $23.5 million coming to Wilton over the past four years.

Vanderslice also explained that while home values have been increasing, there is a decrease in commercial office space and motor vehicle values.

"Residential property will likely increase as a share of the Grand List, so if you do the math, that means (residential) taxpayers will have a greater share of the tax burden," she said.

While she said there is still more to examine, based on early proposals from different departments — augmented by savings in pension contributions and medical insurance —  Vanderslice indicated she is largely on target to keep her town-side budget at a 2-percent increase.

The final budgets for the BOS and the BOE are due March 3.