Commentary: A zero-percent budget increase is wrong

John Kalamarides
John Kalamarides

When our Republican members of the Board of Finance (BOF) presented their opening statements at our April 2 mil rate meeting, I was shocked. Each said in nearly the same words that they would not approve any increase for the Board of Education (BOE) and the Board of Selectmen (BOS) budgets over this year.

It was clear they had met overnight, had made up their minds, and were going to vote for a zero percent increase.

What was their justification to turn away from an eight-month process of giving budget guidance that was met and exceeded by both the Board of Education (BOE) and the Board of Selectmen (BOS)? Why would they turn away from all the cooperation, transparency, and trust that had been built with the BOE? Why did they not see that the two public hearings on the budget produced no real opposition?

Our normal mil rate conversation was suddenly to be a very partisan disagreement. Where usually we openly present our individual ideas, now there was a voting block that had made up their minds before coming to the meeting without consulting us or the members of the BOE or the BOS.

Only one night before the mil rate meeting the first selectwoman led a tri-board meeting where all three boards agreed on a strategic plan for the next fiscal year to deal with any increased or new taxes that might come down on Wilton — and every other municipality — from the current legislative session in Hartford. That agreement included that no budget cuts or special reserve funds beyond what was budgeted already are warranted at this time.

That tri-board determination was appropriate. After an all-day visit to Hartford to meet face-to-face with the leaders of the Senate and members of the finance committee it became clear that there is very little chance of SB 431 being passed. This is the primary bill that has caused concern, and that discusses repeal of the car tax and establishing a homestead exemption, both of which could have significant fiscal implications for Wilton and all other towns. Importantly, after a check with neighboring BOF chairs, no other town is making an allocation in their budget to address these potential, future concerns.

The one item that observers do think has a chance of passing in Hartford this year relates to municipalities sharing in teacher pension costs. But it should be noted that the BOF had already responsibly added an additional $500,000 reserve into the mil rate model just in case this becomes reality.
Due diligence
Prior to our April 2 mil rate meeting the BOF had done eight months of due diligence to see that the schools and the town had met the budget guidance. The schools had been asked to bring their request in at no more than a 1.6-percent increase; and the town at no more than a -percent increase. The schools came in at 1.35 percent and the town at 0.92 percent — both below our guidance, and examples of the fiscal prudence with which they approached their tasks.

Along the way our BOF requested and received from the BOE answers to a complex and exhaustive series of metrics meant to bring to the surface answers and comparative statistics with other area school districts. There was some urgency about this since some members of the BOF believed that with falling enrollment our school budget should decrease in the manner of a corporation.

Former board member Richard Creeth in the fall had 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. (October 24, 2018, Wilton Bulletin)

This issue has been discussed and brewing in our meetings on and off for the past four years. It became clear the same members who have voted to reduce the BOE’s budget had some real issues in believing that education and pedagogy had changed from when they attended school. In fact, methods have changed completely. When the schools offered these members an opportunity to visit to see what was happening in the classroom and to talk with teachers and coaches, they declined.

The statistics were presented in a 50-page report of charts and graphs. Over and over it showed that Wilton is in the middle or low end of our District Regional Group (DRG). In per pupil spending (PPE) Wilton is sixth out of eight. In compounded budget increases since 2014, Wilton is seventh of nine.

There were exciting changes in the school budget for this next year. One is an alternative school which would save the schools approximately $430,000 and keep students here rather than sending them to specialized schools far away.

This year in comparison to past years, there had been complete openness and cooperation with the BOE. Partly this is due to the sharing of the town finance director with the schools. Partly this is due to two members of the BOF serving on the BOE business operations committee. Partly this due to the spirit of the individuals involved.
Why people move to Wilton
The BOF also did a town-wide survey (led by then-BOF member Richard Creeth, a member of the BOE, and a member of the BOS) that showed the single most important reason why people moved to Wilton was the quality of the schools. The survey also showed that 78 percent of the respondents said the current Wilton budget is not too high, 55 percent were open to a one-percent increase, and 42 percent were open to a two-percent increase.

Then the two Charter-required town board hearings this year had little to no attendance, and certainly no pushback on the proposed BOE and BOS budgets. This is typically, and reasonably, interpreted as town assent.

Those on the BOF who voted to cut the BOE budget cited the results of our town’s long-awaited property revaluation. The revaluation did result in a decrease of 2.08 percent, and there are concerning discrepancies between some types of property versus others. But importantly, these revaluation decreases are much less that other nearby towns. And the fiscal prudence that our BOE and BOS have already shown are the best method of mitigating the effects of these revisions.

For the BOS budget the issue is that the first selectwoman has been tightening the budget since she came into office. It is so tight now that some individuals are doing what three people used to. She has not filled positions. She asked only for a 0.92-percent increase. How much tighter can the budget get without causing problems?

Another real concern relates to the Wilton Library, which is a broad-missioned, essential resource for our town. This year the first selectwoman and the BOS decided not to pursue a matching gift allocation in recognition of how important the library is. If the BOS budget is frozen, it will be at a real disadvantage when seeking to maintain our library — to the detriment of all Wiltonians.

To return to the April 2 mil rate meeting, the reasoning to cut the two budgets was presented by our Republicans colleagues as:

1) We do not know what Hartford will do with increasing taxes.

2) The revaluation has put too much of an increase in taxes on many of our homeowners.

3) The school system has declining enrollment and per pupil costs are too high so the school needs to cut back.

4) The schools can take the approximately $1mm continuing education fund set aside and use it for operations.

It is important to note that the $1mm continuing education fund is not an operating budget fund. It was funded by continuing education fees, not by taxpayers. It was to be used to re-do two classrooms that center on very popular culinary arts classes. A suitable plan and contractor had not been settled on, thus the delay in completing the project. To ask the BOE to use this money for operational expenses is akin to dipping prematurely into one’s retirement or home equity in an emergency or on a state basis similar to robbing the rainy-day fund or the transportation fund for operating expenses. It is terribly disruptive causing the making of some very difficult decisions.
Why support?
So why did I vote to support the BOE and BOS’ requested budgets?

First, the worst threats from Hartford are overblown (perhaps for partisan reasons) and not believed by other BOFs.

Second, our schools and the town have done an excellent job of preparing their budgets this year, and had already come back well-below the BOF’s budget guidance.

Third, to chip away at the town’s finest resource and star attraction will only decrease its value, its worth, its campus, and its product.

Fourth, the BOS budget needs its small requested increase not to choke its operations.

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.

Since the mil rate meeting there has been some talk about how much we pay our teachers. Teacher salaries are based on issues like tenure and advanced degrees. The BOE and superintendent have recently reminded us that our teachers tend to be substantially more experienced than in similar towns — this is a good thing, and precisely what we want for our children. Many of our teachers have a long length of service in Wilton and have reached the top of the pay scale. Our teachers are excellent and are one of the reasons our school system is ranked among the best in the state and in the United States.

The tone of our Republican colleagues has been too negative on the future of Connecticut, the ability of the state to solve our fiscal problems, and the financial strength of our town. This is not the place to delve into the serious decisions that are finally being made in Hartford to address seven decades of pension underfunding, but recent concerns are an indication that Hartford will no longer continue kicking the can. Wilton has worked through problems before and we will do so again along with all the other 168 municipalities that are facing the same issues. This is also not the place to discuss the effect that a sky-is-falling chant may have on Wilton’s real estate market: we are in the same position as many, many towns, but for some reason there are people in our town who seek to overstate our challenges.

I applaud the BOE and BOS on their fiscally responsible budgets, and reaffirm my vote against the BOF determination to deny a budget increase. We should be proud to live in Wilton, and look forward to fighting for our schools for years to come.

John Kalamarides is a Democratic member of the Board of Finance. This is an extended version of his commentary that appears in today's Bulletin.