Reaching another milestone in the FY 2024 budget process at last week’s (March 15) meeting, the Board of Finance asked some final questions on the budgets proposed by the Board of Selectmen (up 2.15% year-over-year) and the Board of Education (up 4.5%), and began to grasp what those higher budgets would ultimately mean for the Town’s mill rate.
The two-and-a-half-hour-long meeting revealed how the individual BOF members are formulating their positions on the budgets and the projected 5.69% mill rate as they head into two key public hearings scheduled for March 21 and March 27.
Far from reaching a consensus, the board members are taking polar opposite positions at this juncture. Two members seemed ready to support the current budget proposals while other members — including BOF Chair Michael Kaelin — said the resulting mill rate is untenable.
But of those opposed to the projected mill rate increase, Kaelin was the only one to take aim at any specific component of either the BOS or BOE budget by suggesting where savings could be found. Kaelin took a direct shot at the nearly $1.4 million the school district proposed spending on instructional coaches.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice also made some of her strongest statements on the budget to date, clearly trying to discourage the BOF from budget reduction tactics that would unfairly impact the BOS budget (which is up 2.15% to $34.7 million) relative to the BOE budget (up 4.5% to $90.6 million).
A video recording of the entire meeting can be found on the Town website.
A Closer Look at the Budgets
Before delving into the mill rate discussion, the BOF took another close look at the BOS budget proposal. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice attended the meeting to address BOF questions on the $34.7 million budget proposal the BOS had voted unanimously to adopt last month.
Vanderslice discussed the proposed 2.15% increase for FY’24 in the context of the 0.86% average annual increase over the past eight years.
“Over the last eight years, we have worked to make structural changes that have permanently reduced the cost of municipal government,” Vanderslice reminded the BOF.
Vanderslice proceeded to outline the BOS budget’s major expense items — notably employee costs such as wages, medical benefits and retirement plan — as well as expected revenues and where earlier estimates are now firming up.
Possible Reductions, If Required
While defending the BOS budget as proposed (including the planned hire of an additional police officer), Vanderslice also anticipated that the BOF would seek reductions to the budget she is requesting. She came prepared to discuss where she would look, if necessary, to cut the proposed BOS budget.
Among other things, Vanderslice said she would have to consider:
- Deferring funding for the planning phase of Cider Mill pond dredging — a multi-year project that will be necessary at some point
- Increasing user fees for Parks and Recreation programming and the Transfer Station
- Reducing the Wilton Library Association and Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps grants, which would mean more fundraising (or budget cutting) for those entities
- Reducing budgeted wage increases for open-contract or non-union employees
- Reducing the salary of the First Selectwoman’s position
In all, Vanderslice identified $427,000 in possible reductions but emphasized that was only if required by the BOF; otherwise, she would not willingly recommend any reductions to the Town.
In written exchanges with BOF member Chris Stroup prior to the March 15 meeting, Vanderslice explained her calculation behind the $427,000 figure was based on the BOS’ share (15%) of the combined town and school proposed budget increases and a mill rate (3.5%) she believes voters will find acceptable.
“Based on my sense of the community, I believe a mill rate increase acceptable to voters, once adequately explained, is in the range of 3.5%. A 3.5% increase requires a reduction of $2,710,000 in expenses. The BOS requested increase equals 15.4% of the combined BOS/BOE requested increase, or a proportional share of the decrease of $427,039,” Vanderslice wrote.
Vanderslice acknowledged the BOF’s authority to set budgets.
“Under the Charter, it is the responsibility of the BOF to review the budgets and determine where the BOF thinks there is an opportunity to reduce the budget,” Vanderslice wrote.
She seemed to be suggesting the BOF wouldn’t find any room to cut in the BOS budget. More directly, she made the point that asking the BOS to reduce its budget proportionally more than the BOE would send the wrong messages.
“It sends two bad messages,” Vanderslice wrote. ” [First], in the future, the Board of Selectmen should play the game of overstating our budget request to be at least as high as the BOE’s so as not to be disproportionally impacted by reductions. [And second], more importantly, the work of the police officers, firefighters, highway drivers and other BOS employees and the services they provide are not valued as much as the work/services of the BOE employees.”
BOE Holds The Line
Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith and BOE Chair Ruth DeLuca also attended the March 15 BOF meeting. They both maintained the budget they’ve proposed is already as low as they would recommend.
Smith kept his comments brief.
“I don’t want to belabor it. I think you have the information you need,” Smith told the BOF. “We’ve made a couple of rounds of reductions in this budget. We’ve made reductions in those lines in previous years… that’s not where we would find any big dollar reductions.”
“At this point in time, if we make reductions, we’re looking at services and staff,” Smith said.
In fact, his FY’24 budget proposal already reflects staff cuts. In the past, some members of the BOF have pointed to declining student enrollment to ask whether staffing should follow accordingly rather than increase as it has in the past. This year, Smith’s budget does eliminate nine teachers at Middlebrook to match a drop in student numbers.
DeLuca reinforced Smith’s comments.
“This budget really is a reflection of both the current economic and inflationary environment, and the necessary resources to sustain and advance the mission and the values of what is known as a Wilton education,” DeLuca said. “That’s where we find ourselves right now.”
Mill Rate Discussions
Wilton’s Chief Financial Officer Dawn Norton gave the BOF a brief overview on the mill rate calculations, including some of the more complex factors such as the use of Excess Fund Balance.
Kaelin invited his fellow board members to respond to the bottom line 5.69% mill rate increase. The following are the key comments offered by each board member:
Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg initially called the 5.69% increase “just insulting,” but was more conciliatory in his subsequent comments.
“I think both the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen have done a very admirable job in trying to find the right balance for their constituents in coming up with those budgets,” Koenigberg said.
“Having said that, I do believe that 5.69% might be too high, perhaps significantly too high for many of the constituents,” Koenigsberg added. “I think we’re in a challenging spot right now.”
Chris Stroup said he was inclined to support the proposed budgets.
“Directionally, I am happy to support the budgets that have been proposed by the Board of Selectman and the Board of Education,” Stroup said. “I know both boards adopted their budgets after a rigorous review of the services that they believe they ought to provide, and understanding the costs to provide [them]. And in both cases, I believe that the budgets were passed [by the BOE and BOS] without opposition.”
“I’m not troubled by a 5.7% increase in taxes,” Stroup continued. “I, like everyone else, would like to have more for less, but as we’ve discussed repeatedly here, these budgets are a reflection of values. And I would not be surprised if this community of Wilton supported a 5.7% increase in taxes to provide the services that have been articulated in these budgets.”
Sandy Arkell was also reticent to squeeze the budgets any further.
“I talk to a lot of parents in town, [who] I would say are fully supportive of the Board of Education budget. I do think, in the Board of Ed budget, there’s really not a lot of opportunity [for reductions],” Arkel said. “If I look back on the past few years, we’ve been pretty tight with our budget increases, and at some point, especially in an inflationary environment, you can only kick the can for so long and you’ve got to pay the piper.”
“What I hear parents talking about is the huge need for the academics, for the social-emotional support within our student body,” Arkel said. “The only tradeoff that I really see is the tradeoff of increased classroom sizes. But I think that comes at a cost that they’re not willing to make. I think this is a very thoughtful process from both boards. Right now, my indication is people are supportive of the budget increase.”
Like Arkel, Raimondi said he had spoken with numerous Wilton residents — but with different conclusions.
“The sense I get is that there is significant opposition to a [5.69%] mill rate increase,” Raimondi said. “The feedback I’ve received really across the board is that we are in a time of high inflation, and yes, that does impact our budgets… but that’s also impacting our residents as well, our friends and neighbors, and people want to see some fiscal restraint because of that.”
“I am not in favor of a 5.69% increase, or anything near that,” Raimondi stated.
He didn’t suggest areas for budget reductions.
“How that triangulates down to the Board of Selectmen or education budget is hard to say,” Raimondi continued. “I understand the difficulty there with [reductions] that the [BOS and BOE] have to make if we were to cut them. So I am reserving judgment on exactly what I would do, but I will say something probably has to be done because 5.69% is too high.”
Rich Santosky said he believes there still might be opportunity to reduce the proposed budgets to a level more taxpayers will find acceptable.
“While a lot of people will want to support both budgets, they will not want to support a 5.7% increase in the mill rate. I think that is beyond the level of what our taxpayers are going to tolerate at an eventual Town Meeting,” Santosky predicted.
“To say that we’ve exhausted all opportunity for savings… I think we haven’t gotten there yet. We can deliberate, but I do suspect that we will have a hard time in a Town Meeting with this 5.7% mill rate increase.”
BOF Chair Kaelin spoke last, challenging the public to disabuse him of the perception the mill rate increase is too high.
“If it was up to me individually as a taxpayer to vote on the budget today, 5.69% is a non-starter,” Kaelin said. “I’m not going to support that, as a taxpayer.”
“The only thing that’s going to make me change that as a member of the Board of Finance is if the public overwhelmingly communicates to me, to the rest of [the BOF], in the public hearings, by writing us by email, or by filling out the survey, that they’re okay with that [increase].”
“If they support the 5.69% increase, then they have to tell us that,” Kaelin repeated.
Unlike his fellow board members, Kaelin suggested one area where he thinks budget reductions might be possible.
“I’m the only one pointing out one specific item, in one specific budget,” he said. “We are spending close to $1.4 million on coaches for teachers. We are not spending that money on people to teach your children. We’re spending it on people to help the people and coach the people that teach your children.
“I’m just telling the Board of Finance, and the public, I’m troubled by this,” Kaelin said. “I’ve listened and watched all the justifications for the coaching program that have been provided by the schools, and I agree with them. It’s a terrific program, and it has merit, but I’m being asked to pay for the program as a taxpayer. And in a year when we’re looking at a 5.69% increase in taxes, do I want to pay $1.4 million for coaches for teachers? My answer is no.”
“We went through what our responsibilities were as members of the Board of Finance with town counsel. We have a responsibility to determine if there are places in the budgets where we could find savings. There’s a place in the Board of Ed budget where I think we can find savings,” Kaelin concluded.
“I’m just being as blunt and as honest as I can be right now, that I don’t get it yet,” Kaelin said. “So if the public wants to have an impact, at least on my vote, they’re going to have to tell me this is what they want and they’re willing to pay for it.”
Upcoming Public Hearings
Public Hearing on the BOS Budget: Tuesday, March 21, 7 p.m., Comstock Community Center Room 31 and remotely via Zoom (find the Zoom link on the meeting agenda posted on the Town website)
Public Hearing on the BOE Budget: Monday, March 27, 7 p.m., Middlebrook Auditorium and via Zoom (Zoom link will be on the meeting agenda once it is posted on the Town website)