Finance board holds preliminary FY18 budget discussion

The Board of Finance briefly discussed debt service, state funding, budget guidance and the Board of Education during its preliminary discussion of the fiscal year 2018 (FY18) budget on July 19.

Board of Finance Chair Jeff Rutishauser said the debt service increase over the current fiscal year is “a little over $1 million.”

“That’s before anything else goes up, so we already have $1 million in debt service locked in,” said Rutishauser, who also raised the question: “What do we want to do with money from Hartford?”

“Last year, they cut us at a time we could little afford to change the numbers,” said Rutishauser, noting that the town still has “roughly $2.1 million total between education and state grants in last year’s budget.”

“If we decided to go all the way to zero — the furthest we can go — and not recognize anything from the state in the budget, and it just comes when it comes,” he said,” that would add another $2.1 million from where last year’s budget was approved at.”

Rutishauser said he knows that might be too big of a jump when the town is already looking at debt service going up $1 million.

“I just wanted to put that on the table because these are the numbers even before we start seeing the operating budgets from the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education,” he said.

“These are two large numbers over last year’s number that form a good chunk of that deficit before we get to any increases in the operating.”

Finance board member Walter Kress said he doesn’t think it would be unreasonable to cut one-third of state reimbursement from the budget because “given the way the state is going,” he said, “we really ought to expect not to get a-third of that.”

“I don’t know if we can take the $2.1 million out — I think that is rather draconian, and I hope it doesn’t happen to that extent,” said Kress, but “anything less than $700,000 on the base budgeting itself I don’t think is responsible.”

Budget guidance

The board also discussed its provision of budget guidance for the Boards of Selectmen and Education, which finance board member John Kalamarides said provided “such a headache” last year.

Rutishauser said he spoke to other finance board chairs and learned that they do not provide budget guidance.

“We are alone in that regard, which doesn’t mean we should or shouldn’t, but last year it seemed controversial,” he said. “The question is: Does it help us or does it hurt us, and does it provide benefit for these groups to try to target or not?”

Board of Finance Vice-chair Warren Serenbetz said he believes giving guidance is beneficial.

“You can argue about what that guidance should be,” said Serenbetz, “but there is a benefit to knowing this is what the Board of Finance is expecting from [them] and [they] can choose to do it or not do it.”

Kress agreed and said he believes “both the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education should indeed have a budget, but they should also have a budget assuming something negative happens.”

The finance board should also “go into it this year assuming something negative happens,” said Kress.

“As far as the preliminary budget, I think that we need to put together reasonable guidance,” he said, “and I really think we ought to assume that a-third of [state reimbursement] is not going to come in.”

Education budget

With Wilton schools experiencing declining enrollment, said Kress, the idea of the Board of Education budget going up at all is something he doesn’t think he can be in favor of.

“They need to be better at controlling their costs,” said Kress, who still questions if all school administrative jobs, such as high school associate and assistant principals, are “absolutely needed.”

“Does it really serve what we need to be doing out there?” said Kress. “I would really like to challenge the Board of Education because I don’t want to go into the September discussion and start to get into the same pickle we were in last year.”

Kalamarides said it would be helpful if the education board provided the finance board with “more understanding of what some of the administrative jobs do.” Kress agreed.

“The distance we are from the Board of Education is still so huge,” said Kalamarides. “Let’s try our best to continue opening doors, ask questions and get some answers early on.”

Rutishauser said he and Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly have agreed to “work together” and “do things differently” this budget season, and the education board seems serious about putting together a five-year budget plan.

“There is more of a willingness than I’ve ever seen before,” said Rutishauser, “so let’s assume that that’s going to be a serious effort and we are going to get something this year’s that’s worthy of a three- to five-year projection.”

Rutishauser said the education board’s long-term plan has to focus on “more than just projecting people and dollars.”

“It has to be a strategic plan,” he said, and deal with things like state funding, facilities changes and possible regionalization, as well as the needs and resources of the town.

“Those kinds of things have to be looked at, and they can’t be on a one-year basis,” said Rutishauser. “ A strategic plan looks at all of that, and good organizations plan over the horizon.”

With two board members — Peter Balderston and Richard Creeth — missing from the July meeting, the other members decided to postpone further discussion on the FY18 budget until August.