Hudspeth: Town budget season now fully upon us in Wilton

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Town budget season is now fully upon us.

Proposed school and town budgets have been presented by the Board of Education (BoE) and the Board of Selectmen (BoS) to the Board of Finance (BoF) for BoF review. The BoF’s decision respecting especially the BoE budget should be made in light of the large amount of federal funds to be provided to Wilton under the American Rescue Plan Act.

No one knew last year what COVID-19’s effect on each of us, our town government and our schools would be from job loss, business disruptions, and unexpected town and school expenses caused by COVID-19’s unprecedented and far-reaching impact. The BoE and BoS came in with very responsible proposed budgets. Those proposed budgets were subject to BoF review and an unprecedented final-approval role of the BoF last year in light of the necessary state mandate against gatherings like our Annual Town Meeting (ATM).

Notwithstanding all of the uncertainties concerning the impact of job loss on town real property tax and transfer tax revenues, the BoF agreed with the BoE and BoS that those budgets should not be cut below the prior year’s but rather maintained given the unknown but expected additional demands to cope with COVID. The BoF even stood ready to consider additional requests for funding if needed as the crisis progressed.

We should be very grateful to our town officials for making those decisions so well amidst such uncertainty. We can now see clearly how good those decisions were, but even at the time when they were made, they seemed the best way forward. We also owe deep gratitude to our medical workers, first responders, teachers, town and school administrators and staff, bus drivers and others who have worked so hard, well and courageously through these enormously challenging times.

As it turned out, tax revenues were not seriously impacted, and Wilton’s real estate market actually took off with the exodus from New York City. At the same time, nimble readjustments by the BoS and BoE have enabled changes necessitated by COVID-19’s impact to be implemented in a carefully considered and prudent - though, when needed, aggressive - way, and both boards are to be commended for seeing us so well through these extraordinary times. Their outstanding leadership and very hard work has kept us safe. Necessary town functions have been maintained and our children educated, though with many changes for them and for our educators as ever-shifting circumstances have dictated.

So now we come to the present budgetary time. Vaccination is proceeding nationwide even more quickly than initially projected, and the new federal legislation is bringing serious support to state and local budgets. The federal funds coming directly to Wilton are approximately $5.3 million. They’re earmarked for specified uses including school-related ones and will be coming in two installments, a year apart, with the first installment to be received in the next few months. Of the first installment (c. $2.67 million), roughly one-third is specifically reserved by law for education-related uses with the remaining two-thirds for town uses in certain specified categories of spending. Those federal funds should, and must, be used to meet the needs of our schools and our town.

Moreover, there is another separate over $1 billion in federal funds for schools coming to Connecticut for state allocation to individual school districts in an amount per district unknown at the time of this column’s submission for publication.

So we know that significant federal support specifically for schools is likely to be received soon. In light of that and for wise decision-making generally, the BoF should proceed with approval of the budgets for next fiscal year as presented by the BoS and BoE, and the ATM should vote to approve them.

While the BoE proposed budget’s 2.99% increase (c. $2.46 million) is a significantly greater percentage than in recent prior years, that percentage increase is well within the range of increases proposed in neighboring towns and follows multiple years of Wilton’s very modest increases (or no increase at all) -- well below what our neighboring towns have been doing in those same years.

Educational catch-up for many students, as well as the need to address students’ COVID-related psychological issues, mean that great demands will be placed on our schools this coming academic year, even as they are right now. We need to rise to the challenge as we did last year with wise decision-making that makes thoughtful provision for the future even in the face of the uncertainties of the present.