Finance board sets ‘budget guidance’

The Board of Finance issued a preliminary fiscal year 2020 (FY20) “budget guidance” with increases of 2% for the Board of Selectmen’s operating and capital budget and 1.6% for the Board of Education budget at its meeting on Oct. 16.

“We should explain what budget guidance is,” said board member Walter Kress. “Budget guidance doesn’t mean how much you can spend. It means what the town can afford, and should be built from the bottom up.”

In determining the budget guidance figures the finance board is recommending to the town and the schools, the board took into account declining school enrollment, property taxes, property values, and the property revaluation.

The board is aiming for a 1.32% increase to the mill rate for the 2020 fiscal year. However, that number is preliminary and there are still unknown factors, such as fluctuations to the grand list and interest rates. “We do not yet know the pricing of existing assets. We’ll know more when we get to budget discussions,” said board member Peter Balderston.

Last year, for the first time, the finance board issued different budget increase guidance percentage to the boards — 1.5% for the Board of Selectmen and 1.0% for the Board of Education.

Because it considers the town and school budgets distinct, the board decided to issue different guidance percentages again this year. “Based on the numbers available, this is the right thing to do,” said finance board chair Jeff Rutishauser.

Balderston commended Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice for “turning over every rock,” when it comes to budgeting for the town. “But, I can’t say the same necessarily for the schools yet,” he said.

The board acknowledged that Wilton’s per pupil expenditure is “good” compared to other districts.

Board member Richard Creeth explained that with declining enrollment, the cost per pupil goes up by a greater percentage automatically because fixed costs don’t go down. “During increasing enrollment you look more efficient even if you’re not and in declining enrollment you look less efficient even if you’re not,” he said.

He said it’s important to know overall meaningful numbers before drawing any conclusions. “As we know more, we may have better visibility into revenues and educational cost sharing to consider,” he said.