Wilton town budget draws few comments
With only three people speaking on the municipal budget presented Thursday, March 28, at a public hearing, there was little comment directed to the Board of Finance or Board of Selectmen.
The speakers were Marilyn Gould, Ed Papp and Malcolm White.
Ms. Gould, a well-known and longtime volunteer who has held a number of public offices, noted she was making her final appearance at a public hearing on the budget. After 37 years in Wilton, she will be moving, and she commented on the sparse turnout by saying, “This is truly sad. I’ve never seen a hearing like this. Please don’t believe the residents are happy with what you are doing. We are tired of ever-increasing taxes … you are taxing us out of town.”
She thanked the Board of Finance for its guideline that budgets should not surpass an increase of 1.75%, but added, “I am very sorry both boards have doubled that.”
She asked the Board of Finance to “hold firm and do what you know is best.”
Ed Papp pointed out that in 2000, the Board of Selectmen’s budget was $15 million and the school budget was $31.4 million, adding the overall budget has “exceeded the growth of the budget in Washington, D.C., and that’s appalling.”
The meeting opened with Board of Finance Chairman Warren Serenbetz giving an overview of budget highlights:
• Total funds required after tax relief is up 4.1%.
• Net taxable grand list is down 17% due to revaluation.
• The Board of Selectmen’s budget is up by 3.625%.
• The Board of Education budget is up by 3.834%.
• The fiscal year 2014 general fund balance is set at 11.06%.
• Pension contribution increased by 15% per board policy to help close the gap on the unfunded liability, which currently stands at $11.2 million.
• Tax relief for the elderly and disabled remains at $1.1 million.
Mr. Serenbetz also noted Moody’s has reaffirmed Wilton’s Aaa bond rating.
Wilton’s town charter spells out the responsibilities of the Board of Finance in establishing the mill rate.
It must take into consideration:
• The views of the voters expressed at the town hearings and in direct communication.
• The financial resources of the town.
• Whether the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen can find savings in their budget requests.
• The appropriateness of the amounts of revenue, debt service and general fund balance.
Among the factors cited by Mr. Serenbetz at the meeting were a consistent tax collection rate compared to prior years and a 19.1% decrease in state grants and funding compared with fiscal year 2013.
Interest income and fees are down from a peak in 2007, but up 16.7% compared to fiscal year 2013.
The Board of Finance also takes into account the unemployment rate, which has hovered around 6% for several years.
Grand list growth is difficult to calculate because of the revaluation, but he said it is expected not to exceed the average 0.54% increase in the previous two years.
What Mr. Serenbetz did say is that because commercial real estate took less of a hit than residential real estate in terms of current value versus 2007 value (when the last revaluation took place), any increase in the mill rate will have more of an impact on commercial properties than on homeowners.
As it stands, were these budgets to be adopted, the required mill rate would be 26.4035, up 25.4% over the current 21.0555.
Mr. Serenbetz reviewed the budgets being presented.
The Board of Education fiscal year 2014 budget as requested is $76.890 million, up 3.83% over the previous year.
The Board of Selectmen’s operating and capital budget as requested is $31.447 million, up 3.62%.
Debt service is $9.150 million, up 6.17%.
The charter authority is $1.175 million, up 3.98%.
Tax relief for the elderly and disabled is $1.1 million, the same as the previous year.
All told, operating requirements total $119.795 million, up 3.92%.
There is a decline in non-tax revenue of $5.424 million, down 5.08%.
There is a drawdown of the previous year’s ending fund balance of $3.151 million, up 16.23%.
The total to be funded from property taxes is $111.220 million, up 4.09%.
First Selectman Bill Brennan followed Mr. Serenbetz and said over the last few years, the town budgets have been “trimmed down to the essentials.”
Major year-over-year expenditures account for approximately 2.5% of the total 3.62% increase the Board of Selectmen is requesting, he said.
Employee benefits are up 3.8%, with medical insurance up 8%.
EMS costs will be up 56% due to a realignment of cost responsibilities.
Two positions have also been included in the proposed budget: a facilities manager, which would be a new position, and a police officer, which would fill the 44th slot on the police roster. This spot has been vacant for some time.
These positions drew the attention of Mr. Papp during the public comment period.
Of the facilities manager, he said he thought it would be a good idea “if and only if” he or she were given full budget and personnel responsibility. Reached later he said, “All current employees in the school and town working on facilities issues (cleaners, maintenance staff, lawn and grounds) along with the budget should report to him, and part of his/her job description should encourage cost reductions. … To just add a non-management ‘staff’ position does nothing but add expensive administrative staff where we are in desperate need of management expertise to control costs.”
As for the police, he said the Police Department went from 41 officers to 44, just before the Route 7 widening project. Since that project is over, he asked why the department could not return once again to 41 officers through attrition, rather than adding one position.
Mr. Serenbetz also presented a five-year overview of proposed bonded capital expenditures, which total $48.455 million. That includes $12.828 million on the town side and $36.627 million on the school side.
Major outlays on the town side include the ongoing road restoration project pegged at $6.786 million for fiscal years 2015-18, renovations to the satellite fire station on Ridgefield Road in fiscal year 2016, and a possible open space acquisition for $2 million in fiscal year 2014.
On the school side, Miller-Driscoll renovations take the biggest bite, at $29.150 million over fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016, and $2.9 million in Cider Mill renovations over three years.
The capital projects drew a comment from Mr. White who said future renovations to Comstock Community Center should have been included as well.
The Board of Finance met Tuesday to offer its input on the budget. Meetings scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday were canceled.(See related story above.)
The annual Town Meeting is set for Tuesday, May 7, at Middlebrook auditorium (not the Clune Center, as previously announced), with an adjourned vote Saturday, May 11, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Clune Center.