Wilton budget guidance misfired, finance board admits

Members of the Wilton Board of Finance, from left, Stewart Koenisberg, Peter Balderston, Chairman Jeff Rutishauser, Ceci Maher, and Walter Kress. — Jeannette Ross/Hearst Connecticut Media
Members of the Wilton Board of Finance, from left, Stewart Koenisberg, Peter Balderston, Chairman Jeff Rutishauser, Ceci Maher, and Walter Kress. — Jeannette Ross/Hearst Connecticut Media

Holding a “post-mortem” discussion on Tuesday, June 18, about this year’s budget process, the Board of Finance agreed its “budget guidance” policy needs to be re-guided.
In April, the board drew fire from the public as well as from some of its own members for issuing budget guidance recommendations to the town and schools and then cutting back on them.
Budget guidance refers to a recommendation made during the budget process by the finance board regarding the town and education budget requests.
In October 2018, the finance board issued a 2-percent increase budget guidance for the Board of Selectmen’s budget and a 1.6-percent increase for the education budget for FY 2020.
Both boards came in under the recommended budget guidance — the selectmen at 0.92 percent and the school board at 1.35 percent.
However, instead of approving the town and school budget requests, the finance board voted on April 2 to keep both budgets flat, at a zero-percent increase — cutting $1,107,044 from the education request and $309,305 from the town’s request.
The April 2 vote came the day after a tri-board meeting of the selectmen, finance and school boards. At that meeting, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice explained there would be a decrease in the grand list from the recent property revaluation, dropping by 2.08 percent. She said there could also be financial impact on the town depending on what the state did with its budget.
The revaluation numbers were a game-changer, according to Republican members of the finance board, who in a 4-2 vote along party lines decided to reject the proposed budget increases and keep the town and school budgets flat.
After that vote, budget supporters complained about the finance board’s turnaround.
Democrat finance board member John Kalamarides wrote a commentary for the Bulletin explaining why he voted against keeping the budgets flat. “It makes no sense not to fund our schools and our town budget with their requested increases. There is no justification in making an 11th-hour voting block decision that goes against everything that was done in preparation for the Town Meeting and ignoring the exhaustive and thorough eight-month review process,” he wrote.
Ultimately, both budgets passed by a wide margin at the referendum in May.
At Tuesday’s meeting, finance board chair Jeff Rutishauser acknowledged problems with the budget guidance.
“In a revaluation year, all bets are off, so it effectively created a misguidance because we didn’t know if the grand list would be down 10 percent ... Maybe we shouldn’t look at guidance models in revaluation years,” he said.
He noted that the “budget guidance” model was designed in an era of a “non-revaluation” year and had been used a number of times previously with success.
He expressed concern that the budget guidance had become a “safe harbor” for the selectmen and school board. “If they come in above the guidance they believe they will get rough treatment from the finance board, but if they come in under the guidance, they believe it’s smooth sailing. That may be a wrong way of reading it. It was designed to be a plus or minus target,” he said.
Lack of discussion

Lack of discussion

Another issue raised in the post-mortem was the manner in which the board voted on the budget at the April 2 meeting.

Just prior to the board’s votes on the town and school budgets, Rutishauser asked each board member to make a statement on them. Votes were then taken. Democrats Ceci Maher and John Kalamarides voted to approve the town and school budgets as requested while the four Republican board members voted against those motions, and instead voted to approve zero-increase budgets.

Maher criticized the vote, saying merely giving a statement beforehand and then “calling the question” to vote prevented meaningful discussion by the board.

The call to vote was made by Kalamarides, who was absent from the June 18 meeting.

Maher said she had no idea walking into the April 2 meeting that several finance board members intended to cut $1 million from the education budget request. She said judging from statements made by several Republican board members, calling for a zero percent increase, it appeared they were “on the same page ahead of time.”

Republicans vehemently denied any allegation that they discussed the budget vote ahead of time. Peter Balderston said this was the second time Republicans had been accused of somehow creating “some kind of cabal” behind the scenes and it wasn’t true.

Rutishauser and Republican Stewart Koenigsberg said the board should have had a more open discussion about the budgets before voting on them and Kalamarides’ calling the question effectively cut off board discussion and “shouldn’t have been done like that.”

“Conclusions would be much richer if we had a discussion about the facts. We need that discussion to get everyone’s opinion,” Koenigsberg said.

“It was an opaque discussion,” Maher said.

Rutishauser said changes could be made next year to allow for more discussion before the budget votes.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited to include comments made by Republican board members and to note that Democrat John Kalamarides made the call to vote.