Despite proposed cuts, budget remains intact
It seemed as though it didn’t matter if you spoke for or against the fiscal year 2017 budget at Wilton’s Annual Town Meeting May 3. Either way, you got a comparable round of applause from the crowd that more than half-filled the Clune Center auditorium.
This speaks to the broad range of feelings Wilton’s people have towards their local government, their town, and their money. As Ray Moskow said, “I’ve heard arguments on both sides for 46 years, and this year, I’ve never heard so many.”
By the end of the evening, which ran from 7:30 to 10:45, after hours of comments and two failed attempts to reduce spending, the budget remained as presented for voters to approve or disapprove. Voting began Tuesday evening and will continue Saturday, May 7, from 9 to 6, at the Clune Center.
The Wilton Board of Finance recommended a budget of $125,488,107 for fiscal year 2017, an increase of 1% over fiscal year 2016’s enacted $124,234,645. This breaks down into $32,201,880 for the town, and $80,572,640 for the school district.
The recommended mill rate was 27.3371 mills, an increase of 1.89% increase over the current 26.83 rate.
There were two bonding authorizations presented for a total appropriation of $2.45 million in bonded capital. These are $1.8 million for the five-year road restoration program, now at the end of its fourth year, and $650,000 to replace the crumb rubber football field at Wilton High School with organic turf.
Board of Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser gave the following budget highlights.
- Total funds required is up 2.08%;
- Net taxable grand list is up 0.19%;
- Board of Selectmen budget is down 0.71%;
- Board of Education budget is up 0.77%;
- Debt service is up 8.1% due to Miller-Driscoll bonding;
- Tax relief for elderly/disabled remains $1.1 million;
- Pension funded at 96.5% of liabilities;
- General fund balance is set at 11.2% of operating budget;
- Moody’s reaffirmed Wilton’s AAA bond rating.
Most who spoke were either commenting for or against the school budget it turned out. As the proposed budget on the town side reflects a decrease fiscal year over year, not many people had much to say about it.
George Cross, who lived in Norwalk for 10 years, said he moved to Wilton for the schools and that the schools, by his experience, are “as advertised.”
“My son came here on a lower-level reading level,” Cross said. “He’s since then caught up significantly. I discourage decreasing in spending on the school system.”
Jillian Desiderio said she was a school social worker for a neighboring district and made comment on the changing nature of education. She also placed great value in education itself.
“To hear any part of an education budget be referred to as a waste or wasteful seems unfair to me,” Desiderio said.
“Education looks significantly different than it did as recent as five years ago. Budgets look different, because the world looks different. Technology, the arts, special education — which looks very different than it did years ago — physical education and activities, and diversified curriculums create a need for dynamic education budgets,” Desiderio said.
“Therefore, I would hope that we could look at the Board of Ed budget being proposed tonight as a budget that meets the needs of the whole child and is certainly not wasteful. Education is no longer just reading, writing and arithmetic,” she said.
Caroline Higgins, a senior at Wilton High School, said, “This year, I was fortunate enough to be a captain of the varsity soccer team, a captain of the returning state champion varsity basketball team, I am a secretary of the French honor society a section leader of the award-winning madrigal choir. I was even the high school's homecoming queen and a four-year high honors student here at the high school.”
“I don't say this to brag about any personal accomplishments, but to share how my peers and I have been provided enormous opportunity here in Wilton while getting an incredible first-class education that provides incredible opportunities, and I ask you, don't change that for the kids that follow us,” Higgins said.
People against the budget — mainly the school budget — had their sights on specific operating expenses, mostly.
“The school budget, since 2007 has increased by 21 million. That’s an increase of 35.18%. We haven’t been chintzy with the school budget,” Alex Ruskewich said.
“Sports is a voluntary private form of entertainment,” said Detlef Fuhrmann, “and I don’t think the public should pay for it.That should be paid for by the people who use it and do it, which would reduce the BOE. budget by about 1.1 million right there.
“A study came out last year from the DMC (District Management Council) which recommended some streamlining of the special ed situation, which would result in savings of 1.4 million,” Fuhrmann continued.
“We would save about 3 million almost right there for this budget. Easy things to do, and would help the whole town,” he said.
Some, however, like Tom Brown, just had a bad feeling about things. Brown said, “I can honestly say that deep down, I think we are spending too much, but I don’t know where and why, and that’s possibly hardly a unique thought.”
Several criticized Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly’s education budget presentation as mostly pathos.
“The Board of Education budget was an entirely emotional presentation,” said Chip Ludgood.
“There was no information about where the increase is coming from. If I’m buying something, I like to see some facts of what I’m paying for, rather than just, ‘It will make you feel good,” Ludgood said.
Another said, “The presentation from the Board of Ed was all emotion, no fact.”
During budget presentations before the comment section of the town meeting began, Rutishauser explained the $1.4 million cut of the Education Cost Sharing grant being debated in Hartford at that very moment.
He said the town had three options: use reserves to cover the potential shortfall, volunteer to reduce spending, or reduce the budget itself by amendment at the town meeting.
Proposed cuts from the floor
As the end of the town meeting approached, two motions were made to cut budgets, both by Al Alper, but both failed.
The first was to cut $200,000 from the Department of Public Works line item in the Board of Selectmen’s budget.
“When we bonded roads five years ago, there was a $600,000 capital line in the budget that was funded year over year by taxes, but when we moved to a bonding item, it was never returned to the taxpayer.”
“Lynne’s reduced it by $200,000 already; I appreciate the cost of money goes up over time, so i’ll assume $200,000 is gone with the wind, which leaves 200K left that we as taxpayers should get back, and hence my motion.”
When Vanderslice commented that other capital purchases were accounted for with that $600,000, Alper argued that that was “artificially infating the budget.”
A vote was taken by show of hands, and when his motion failed, Alper moved to cut the overall Board of Education budget by $800,000.
“Over the course of the last 10 years, the student-to-teacher ratio has been relatively constant,” Alper said. “That notwithstanding, the student to FTE ratio is what has exploded, and it’s exploded to the tune of about $2 million.”
He attributed half of that to the special education encumbrance, and said that leaves $1 million unaccounted for. “I’m asking for $800,000,” he said, but this motion failed also.
Most people left the Clune Center auditorium after discussion moved over to bonded capital, and so not much was said on these matters.
A video of the Annual Town Meeting can be viewed at WiltonCT.org/tv/index.html.