Attendance light at budget hearings


While enrollment was questioned and special education was praised by taxpayers during the Board of Finance’s March 23 public hearing on a proposed $79,956,024 education budget, only a single resident attended the March 24 municipal budget hearing.
The public will get a chance to vote on the budget on two days. The Annual Town Meeting to discuss the budget will take place on May 5 at 7:30 at Middlebrook School, with voting following the meeting. Residents may also take part in the adjurned vote on May 9 from 8 to 6 at the Clune Center.
The lack of attendence at the municipal budget meeting may not be such a surprise, as the municipal budget was largely praised by the Board of Finance last week.
The only person in attendance Tuesday, Wiltonian Patty Temple, asked the Board of Finance to make actual budgets from previous years more accessible to the public.
“I want to see how the town has performed year-over-year,” she said.

When all is said and done, the municipal budget proposed by the Board of Selectmen this year comes in at $32.4 million. Of that, $31.1 million is set for operating expenses, and $1.3 million is set for operating capital.
Operating expenses are day-to-day costs associated with running the town, like salaries and fuel. Operating capital is an amount of money used to fund investment in longer-term purchases, like new tractors or police cruisers.
Though rising salaries of town employees was a concern in preparing this year’s budget, First Selectman Bill Brennan said the budget was kept under control thanks to a 10% decrease in the cost of employee benefits.
Of the operating budget, 44% would be spent on employee compensation, and 21.2% would go to employee benefits.
The increase in operating expenses would be low this year, and operating capital would be at a normal amount, the first selectman said.

Education


Wilton’s student population is shrinking, Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly told the crowd of about 40 people on Monday evening, but he doesn’t believe it is shrinking “as fast as some might say or think it is.”
“Part of our challenge is that there are varying views on what our student population will do in the coming years,” he said.
“We have data from three different sources trying to predict where our student population is going to go over the next 10 years. Some of these numbers show drops, some show gradual reductions and some don’t want to speculate on the unknown.”
Mr. Likly said “the real challenge” is that the district is being asked to predict how many kids its residents might have 10 years from now.
“I believe the answer lies in the quality of our schools, the strength of our economy and the number of beds in our community,” he said.
“Looking at those variables, I believe we will see a stabilization in enrollment in the next 10 years, and there are some speculations that we will see returning growth as well.”
Calvin Road resident Alex Ruskewich questioned Mr. Likly’s take on student enrollment.

“I’ve seen, as I’ve looked on the Web, that most of our neighboring towns are projecting significant enrollment decreases, so I’m wondering what’s different here in Wilton?” he said.
“Are we handing out Viagra packets to the newcomers or something? I just don’t understand why all of a sudden we have a different projection than everybody else.”
Mr. Likly said his statements about enrollment were “personal views,” and that he believes the numbers are going to level off at some point and start to grow.
“I believe that when we look at communities that have shrinking school systems, they also have other issues as the population ages — it creates greater problems. Kids are often the lifeblood of the community,” said Mr. Likly.
“I believe that as we continue to make our schools better and better, it will become more and more of a magnet for people to move to Wilton. As we address the mill rate gap and overall costs, I believe there is a possibility that students will flock to Wilton, as opposed to other communities.”
Mr. Ruskewich said enrollment data from the three sources Mr. Likly mentioned “have an analytical method” and are “based on demographics and not on ‘feel’ or on ‘wish.’”

Budget breakdown


The proposed budget reflects a 1.98% increase over the current fiscal year and breaks down as follows:

  • Salaries: 60.5%.

  • Employee benefits: 17.3%.

  • Contracted services, outplacements, supplies, and equipment: 13.8%.

  • Transportation: 4.5%.

  • Buildings, operations and facilities: 2.9%.

  • Substitutes: 1%.


Mr. Likly said the budget was formed with a focus on “performance, opportunity and continuous improvements.”
“We want to assure that every child is personally connected with their schools. We want to implement a rigorous and relevant curriculum, and we want to recruit, retain and develop the strongest possible employees,” he said.
“We want to sustain a mutually supportive and trusting relationship with our community, and we want to develop operational protocols with a focus on continuous improvement, supported by the budget, that represents value in the eyes of our community and gains the support of taxpayers.”

Salaries and benefits


With employee benefits and salaries making up 77% of the budget, Mr. Likly said, it is important to make sure “the best and brightest” teachers are working in the school district.
To help ensure that the district attracts, develops and retains such employees, Mr. Likly said, the board is working to implement professional learning plans for staff and “giving them opportunities to shine and share their experiences with others.”
Contractual obligations are increasing year-over-year “at almost 2.4%,” said Mr. Likly, which makes it hard to “get budget numbers down.”
However, the proposed budget reflects a 7.28% year-over-year decrease in benefits expenditures, which Mr. Likly said is due to the district’s “transition to a high-deductible health plan, a reduction in overall claims costs and a significant reduction in what is needed in our contribution to the town retirement plan.”

Special education


In January, Superintendent Kevin Smith said 591 students in the district receive special education services.
“We have both a legal and moral obligation to provide for every student who moves into the Wilton school district,” said Mr. Likly, “and we often have little to no advance warning that they are coming.”
Crowne Pond Lane resident Maggy Feltz, whose son has special needs, said she will “continue to support the education budget here in any way that [she] can,” and thanked the education board for its work on the budget.
“I wanted to thank you for respecting the fact that my child’s brain just works differently,” she said. “I don’t think that he could access his education without the level of support that he’s getting. It’s made a world of difference.”
The budget proposes $3,865,367 for special education tuition next year — an $813,609 increase over the current year, due to an increase in outplaced students and mediated legal settlements in recent years.
Special education legal expenses, independent evaluations and services account for 62% of the 19.94% increase in purchased professional services, which accounts for $3,671,989 of the budget.
To view the Board of Education’s budget presentation, visit http://bit.ly/1BqjcX3 .
The town budget is online at wiltonct.org.