Selectmen budget jump tops 3%

The Board of Selectmen Feb. 27 finalized its budget request for all town departments except education, voting unanimously to ask the Board of Finance to approve $33.23 million, a $1.03-million increase, or 3.20%, from the current year’s $32.20 million.

In light of the budget troubles in Hartford that are bleeding down to the towns, the selectmen knew that number would not stick.

“I know the Board of Finance will reduce this budget,” said First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice. “There’s no question.”

Part of the budget problem locally is that there is no grand list growth this year, Vanderslice said. “When you have people speaking against development, this is what you have,” she said at the meeting at town hall.

Assessor David Lisowski filed the grand list Tuesday, Chief Financial Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz said at Tuesday night’s Board of Finance meeting. It came in at $4.3 billion, she said, showing an increase of just 0.268%, slightly better than the 0.18% increase of the previous year.

Further cuts to the municipal budget could have been made, but Selectman Mike Kaelin, for example, was opposed to cutting the school resource officer or reducing funding on police shifts.

So “we’ll present this and see what happens,” Vanderslice said on Monday. “We are going to have to deal with it when it happens. Everybody is going to have to think about it.”

Vanderslice has said there have already been two jobs cuts in her office this season.

It’s not budget season as usual for Wilton or any other Fairfield County town as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy attempts to shift burdens to the towns to meet an estimated $1.4-billion deficit in fiscal year 2018 alone.

For Wilton, Malloy’s proposals would mean a more-than-$1-million reduction in educational aid plus a $4-million expense to cover the state teacher pension plan, Vanderslice has said. If both are adopted by the legislature — which appears to be taking up grievous dissent to the plan — they could mean an approximately 5% increase in Wilton’s annual budget, Vanderslice said.

Board of Finance

At its meeting on Feb. 28, finance board members discussed the town and education budgets in general terms with Vanderslice, who was in the audience.

Moving to the speaker’s podium, she reviewed a meeting she and other town officials had with Ben Barnes, head of the state’s Office of Policy and Management, and a recent WestCOG (Western Connecticut Council of Governments) meeting.

The state does not have the money to pay into the teachers’ pension plan, she said, and Barnes indicated towns will not know how that will affect them until early June. Wilton’s mill rate is scheduled to be set in late March.

Most towns will put state cuts in education funding in their budgets, she said, but the consensus appears to be they will do nothing about the teachers’ pension.

“If they have to pick it up, they will do it in a special appropriation,” she said. “Everyone’s in a tough bind.”

Here, under the town’s charter, the Board of Finance, may authorize a supplemental appropriation not to exceed 1% of the total annual budget for the town for the then-current fiscal year “and the total amount of any and all supplemental appropriations authorized by such Board in respect of such budget shall not exceed 2% of such budget.” If funds are needed beyond that, the town can call a Special Town Meeting.

Board member Walter Kress expressed deep concern about the situation, calling it a “cram down” from the state. Regarding the teachers’ pension, he said, “we had no say in the structure of the pension originally, the funding or any of the investments, any of the governance, the governance itself on that is very skewed. … My fear is if we start down this road, what’s behind?

“If you start at the governance perspective, we have no say in that. And so what’s to say the state can’t just take and shift increasing underfunded liabilities they have back down to the towns?

“If we have to pick this up in the mill rate, what it does to our property taxes will absolutely decimate the value and the people who might be considering moving to Connecticut won’t. They just won’t,” he said.

As an example, he said the value of the house he purchased six years ago is down 17% and his tax rate is up 20%.

“I just have a real deep concern if we just say OK, we’ll just keep on taking this and raising our taxes that the investments we’ve all made in our community — great schools or no great schools — are at severe risk on things we don’t have control over.”

He’s asked if communities as a whole are looking at this.

Vanderslice replied that the CCM (Connecticut Conference of Municipalities) is looking at it, “rather than every town expending legal funds to look at it, we’re relying on them to do it.”

Ben Barnes’ and the governor’s position is that this is aid that has been given to the towns all along, she said. Wealthier communities pay their teachers more and pay for more expensive programs.

“I agree that if you want us to pay for it, then give us control,” Vanderslice said. “Our teachers are well paid … they have smaller class sizes than you have in Bridgeport, they might be more interested in negotiating with us on their pension contribution than an inner-city teacher.”

She added she thinks the town should have the authority to do it but it would be a “legal mess” to implement statewide.

Kress asked if there is a “material adverse event clause” that would permit opening up the teacher contract to renegotiation.

“If you look at what we have at the table today from the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Ed as it stands today, you add in the loading, I’ll call it, from the cram down from the teacher pension payment, we’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of a 7% tax increase. That is just untenable.

“All these things really need to be on the table, because this is a material adverse event if ever there was one, in my opinion.”

The discussion ended with Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser noting that the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen will meet for a budget review on Monday, March 6, at 7:30 p.m. in town hall Room B.