Town, schools kept to zero budget increase in Wilton

The Board of Finance voted to keep both the education and town budgets flat, at a zero-percent increase for the upcoming fiscal year at meetings on April 2 and April 3. Even with that, the proposed mill rate is 28.5373, a 1.24% increase over last year.
In a split 4 to 2 vote along party lines, the finance board approved $81,876,563 for the Board of Education operating budget — $1,107,044 less than the schools requested. The schools sought a 1.35-percent increase. The $1,107,044 cut zeroed out that request.
Republican board members voting in favor of a zero-percent increase to the education budget were chair Jeffrey Rutishauser, vice chair Walter Kress, Peter Balderston and Stewart Koenigsberg.
Democrats John Kalamarides and Ceci Maher voted against it, wishing to keep the requested 1.35% increase intact.
The board acknowledged the schools had heeded the board’s budget guidance, which called for a maximum 1.6-percent increase, by coming in at 1.35 percent.
However, that budget guidance was requested in October 2018, before the town’s property revaluation numbers were revealed, and before the board knew the grand list would be going down by around $90 million. Also since then, questions have been raised about financial impacts and burdens the state may place on towns.
“This year it is critical to focus on the burden of the Wilton taxpayer,” said Rutishauser, acknowledging the grand list shortfall. “Accepting both operating budgets as submitted and passing the entire $3 million shortfall into higher taxes this year is just not affordable to the town in a revaluation decline year. We need to find a budget solution that shares the $3 million shortfall across taxpayers and budget requests in a fair way and we believe will have the support of the town at the upcoming ATBM in five weeks,” he said.
“I have witnessed a change in the school budget — embracing austerity,” Balderston said. “But even with a zero-percent increase in the education budget, there is a 0.75-percent per pupil increase due to falling enrollment. We don’t see light at the end of the tunnel in terms of declining enrollment.”
Attending the meeting by phone, Kress said he was concerned about potential impact from the state. “Hartford has been irresponsible and cavalier in approach. They throw something up for consideration just to see if it sticks,” he said.
In support of the schools’ budget request, Maher noted the town and schools both came in under the finance board’s budget guidance. “We need to stay the course with the recommendations. Not lead with fear but with informed decision making,” she said.
Kalamarides said he was good with the proposed education increase, especially since no one spoke up against it at the board’s budget public hearings. “I do not think the sky is falling in. Stick with what we have,” he said.
Town budget
Getting to zero for the town operating budget was a bit more complicated and details for cuts still need finalization by the Board of Selectmen.
In February, the selectmen proposed a  .092% increase for its operating budget and operating capital budget, well under the finance board’s two-percent guidance.
“Both agencies need to live through a zero-percent increase for this year,” Balderston said.
In another 4 to 2 vote, along the same party lines, the finance board voted to cut $309,305 from the town’s operating and operating capital budget request.
There was an issue as to whether the finance board could cut specific lines in the selectmen’s budget or leave it up to the selectmen to decide. After review with town counsel, the board announced at the April 3 meeting it would specifically cut the $309,305 from the town’s human resources reserve fund line.
The board made the cut knowing the Board of Selectmen, by right, has the ability to re-allocate where the cut is made with a four-out-of-five member vote.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, who was in attendance at the meeting, said the selectmen will review the $309,305 cut at its meeting on April 15. The finance board will set a meeting after that to take a final vote on the town’s operating and operating capital budgets.
First Selectwoman’s response
Following the April 3 meeting, the first selectwoman issued the following statement:
"I am conflicted about the Board of Finance’s decision not to recommend an increase in the Board of Selectmen’s budget for FY2020,” she said.
“On the one hand, I am extremely concerned about the disproportional impact that revaluation will have on residents’ FY2020 property taxes. At a time when the overall residential grand list is down 4%, approximately one-half of residential taxpayers saw their valuations increase, meaning their taxes will increase at a much greater rate than the 1.24% proposed mill rate increase. For many, their increase will not be sustainable. We are working to identify ways, outside of the budget, to assist those residents.
“On the other hand, the town department heads and the Board of Selectmen submitted a budget, which we felt was appropriate and which already included staffing reductions. We have returned almost $3 million to the general fund in the four years from FY2016 through this current year. Much of that was labor savings achieved through vacancies, not layoffs. We obviously have not yet developed a plan to absorb this reduction, but I know I speak for the entire Board of Selectmen when I say we are committed to seeking measures that do not include layoffs.”
With finalization of the town budget still in the works, the board voted on the following resolutions at its April 3 meeting:

  • Approve $81,876,563 for the Board of Education operating budget.

  • Set the estimated rate of tax collections due on the Oct. 1, 2018 net taxable grand list of $4,249,234,560 at 99.3%.

  • Set estimated FY20 revenues, excluding property taxes, at $4,753,424.

  • Appropriate $10,153,497 for debt service.

  • Appropriate $1,255,321 for charter authority, including $313,830 under the jurisdiction of the Board of Selectmen and $941,491 under the jurisdiction of the Board of Finance.

  • Set the June 30, 2020 estimated general fund balance for $13,178,738 which is 10% of the FY 20 total operating funds required — $12,678,738 plus an additional $500,000 of discretionary reserves.

  • Set the June 30, 2019 estimated general fund balance for $16,030,511, leaving $2,851,773 to be used to finance the FY20 budget.

  • Provide $1,210,000 in tax relief for elderly and disabled citizens.

  • Provide $20,750 in tax relief for the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Georgetown Fire District.