Budgets: Status quo requires mill rate hike

All things being equal, if there were no changes to the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen budgets as proposed, the mill rate upon which taxes are figured here would increase from 27.3371 to 27.7750, according to information presented by the Board of Finance on March 27. Finance chairman Jeffrey Rutishauser made this point during a public hearing Monday night on the Board of Selectmen budget at Middlebrook School.

The mill rate is the amount of taxes paid per $1,000 of assessed property value. That means, for example, that the owner of a property assessed at $700,000 would pay $19,135.97 in taxes under the current mill rate. That would increase to $19,442.50 under the higher mill rate.

The Board of Finance, however, has not set the mill rate. It was to make its decision Wednesday, March 29, or Thursday, March 30.

A few dozen people attended Monday night’s hearing and most of those who spoke were in favor of the municipal budget that would rise 3.2% if left untouched. As presented by First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice, the fiscal year 2018 request is $33.234 million, up from $32.202 million in fiscal year 2017. The new request is broken down to $32 million in the operating budget and $1.174 million in the capital budget. The fiscal year begins July 1.

In addition to the municipal budget, other town expenses include:

  • $80.573 million — Board of Education budget request, up 0%.

  • $11.768 million — Debt service, up 2.6%.

  • $1.256 million — Charter authority, up 1.1%.

  • $1.121 million — Tax relief for elderly and disabled, up 0%.

That results in total operating expenses of $127.952 million, up 1.06%.

That number is reduced by non-tax revenue of $4.746 million and a drawdown of the previous year’s ending fund balance of $4.113 million.

That leaves the total to be funded by property tax of $119.092 million, up $2.191 million from fiscal year 2017, for an increase 1.87%. This does not include any additional funds the town may need to raise if it has to contribute to the state teachers’ pension fund, as proposed by Gov. Dannel Malloy. That will not be known until later this spring.
Budget breakdown
The main drivers of the operating budget increase, Vanderslice said, were:

  • $620,000 in benefits — group insurance and pension increases, tuition reimbursement.

  • $284,000 in a general wage increase — 1.95% for non-union employees up to 2.75% for the police union. Also includes overtime for the fire department and step increases for newer fire and police employees.

  • $90,000 in building repairs.

  • $60,000 in the expected tax bill from the Georgetown Fire District.

Drivers of the capital budget include:

  • $50,000 for updating the Plan of Conservation and Development, something that must be done every 10 years, although this is an accelerated schedule.

  • $250,000 for state-mandated property revaluation.

  • $184,000 for police, mostly for the replacement of its motor vehicle fleet. Police cruisers are retired after 60,000 miles.

  • $303,000 for fire, including $150,000 for hydraulic rescue equipment.

  • $315,000 for public works, mostly trucks that need replacing.

In addition to operating expenses, the municipal budget includes a request to bond several projects at a total cost of $5,061,000:

  • $2,795,000 — Road repaving, which would increase from 10 miles per year at present to 15 miles per year.

  • $1,266,000 — Plan and study for police headquarters expansion.

  • $750,000 — Repair tennis courts at high school and middle school.

  • $100,000 — Middlebrook elevator.

  • $100,000 — Board of Education building roof study.

  • $50,000 — Planning money for paving and lights at the school bus barn.

“One of our goals is to fund to a minimum reduction in services so we are able to provide services residents have come to expect,” Vanderslice said in explaining the town’s expenses.

Despite the increase in expenditures, she said, the budget does reflect savings. Two positions have been eliminated — a secretary in the first selectman’s office and in the finance department. In the latter instance, one employee retired and was not replaced.

“Our goal is not to do layoffs, not to do furloughs but to take advantage of vacancies,” she said.
About 10 people made comments about the budget, including Elaine Tai Lauria and Glenn Hemmerle, who spoke in support of Wilton Library. Tai Lauria is the library’s executive director and Hemmerle is president of the library trustees.

“Placing a dollar value on community services that are sometimes intangible can be difficult to measure,” said Tai Lauria, who noted the library request is 2.1% of the town budget. That money pays for operations and staff. Program and collection expenses must be covered through fund raising.

She described the library as the “classroom outside the classroom” and a contributor to the “intellectual landscape” of the town.

Hemmerle pointed out that the library must raise $850,000 a year in donations. “That is no small task in this town when you are competing with all the other nonprofits,” he said. The library’s requested increase of $13,000 would amount to “not even a penny a day per household,” he added.

“If we don’t send the signal we believe in this community, we believe in this town, we believe its citizens are willing to step up and keep the library as the heart of this community, keep the school system funded at the high level that it is, we will be in a death spiral.”

The specter of a death spiral was raised by Alex Ruskewich, who warned that although many of the budget ideas were “very good,” the town might “price yourself out of the market.”

Referring to the Fairfield County real estate market, he said, “They are starting to price themselves out of the market for a lot of people. What happens … the town starts to get into something akin to a death spiral.”

He urged the finance board to “keep our total mill rate flat.”

Paul Bologna said he thought it was admirable the Board of Education came in with a 0% increase, but on the town side, he said, he did not hear “any tough decisions that you get paid for and people volunteer for to make as to where can cuts be.”

“Nobody wants to see cuts of individuals, but someone has to identify where potential cuts can be made.” Attrition does not address the Board of Finance request to cut a budget by 1.25%, he said.

“It is difficult to see the Board of Ed hold their costs at zero and potentially damage the jewel of Wilton because, let’s face facts, people don’t come to Wilton for the fire department or the police department, which are absolutely necessary, people don’t come to Wilton for town hall …”

People come to Wilton for the education, but education is getting slashed, he said, “and at the same time the town budget is going to absorb all those cost savings in one fell swoop. That’s a difficult proposition for many people in town to swallow.”

Brian Lilly disagreed, saying that “those hard decisions have already been made before we got to this point.” As an example, he said, $700,000 to resurface Kristine Lilly field has been put off to next summer.

“Those hard decisions are made,” he said, “but you don’t see them because what you see is what’s left.”

Vanderslice said there were discussions about reducing the number of firefighters on duty during each shift and reducing the number of snowplow drivers.

‘No one calls me up to tell me their road has been plowed too fast,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of depth in our staff so you can cut people. We’re a very lean operation. If we’re going to cut staff, it will have to be fire, police or public works.”

Rich Berg asked about recruiting more business to town. Vanderslice replied that “the corporate business just isn’t there” and that residential and medical developments are areas of greatest interest to investors.