Now that FY2024 budget proposals from the Board of Education (BOE) and Board of Selectmen (BOS) are taking shape, Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) is planning a survey of residents to gauge public sentiment about potential budget increases.
The BOF conducted a similar survey last year, led by BOF Clerk Matt Raimondi, in which over 500 residents participated.
The board is aiming to kick off the survey earlier in the budget process than it did last year, to maximize resident participation and the impact on the board’s budget resolutions. GOOD Morning Wilton will update readers when the survey will open.
Budget Planning Is Underway
Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith made the first big move of the new budget season with an “initial” BOE budget run that would call for nearly $92 million for the 2023-2024 school year — a 5.99% year-over-year increase.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice is expected to make the next big move, with a preview of the BOS budget at the Tuesday, Jan. 24 BOS meeting.
While the BOF had anticipated FY’24 would be an especially challenging budget year, the 5.99% BOE increase is double the hypothetical 3% increase the BOF had used as an assumption in a mill rate model as recently as November.
With the “question of affordability” looming, the BOF quickly convened a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17 to discuss the school budget hike.
At that meeting, the board acknowledged that resident input would be more important than ever, and called another special meeting on Thursday, Jan. 19 to begin planning for a new survey.
Resident participation in the budget process seems increasingly hard to get. Despite multiple appeals by BOF Chair Mike Kaelin last year for the public to weigh in with their opinions, attendance at last year’s public hearings on the budget was paltry, and the budget passed by default, with voter turnout far below the required threshold of 15% of voters.
New… and Improved?
The BOF survey was intended to give the board another tool for efficiently gathering resident feedback on the proposed budgets to inform its final resolutions. However, last year’s survey results did not necessarily weigh heavily on BOF members’ budget deliberations.
“Each member of the board put whatever weight or consideration or stock into that survey that they thought appropriate,” Kaelin said during last year’s budget deliberations. “I personally didn’t put any weight on the survey.”
He later clarified his comment, saying, “I wouldn’t say I didn’t put any weight on it, but it was not what made up my decision.”
The original questionnaire was crafted by board members, without a survey research expert.
GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to Kaelin to inquire if he would be seeking any changes to the survey methodology that might make it more actionable.
In an email response, Kaelin wrote that his comments about last year’s survey were not intended to disparage it, but that he views the survey as one tool — among others — in the BOF’s toolbox.
“The survey is just one [of] many ways for voters to communicate their views to the Board of Finance,” Kaelin wrote. “Voters should not think that is the only way to communicate their views, nor that the survey results will unduly influence our decisions. Everyone should know that they can communicate their views to the Board of Finance in whatever way they are most comfortable, including writing [to] the Board of Finance directly and speaking during the public comment portion of our meetings.”
“The Board of Finance would like to obtain as much input from the voters as possible on the proposed budgets and their willingness to pay for them before the Board of Finance votes on the proposed budgets and the corresponding tax rate,” Kaelin added.
“We on the Board of Finance are eager to hear from [voters],” Kaelin emphasized.
Finalizing Survey Content
In the Jan. 19 meeting, Raimondi said the upcoming survey would be “similar if not the same” as last year, with some questions that could be “tweaked.”
As discussion evolved, however, board members agreed to take a fresh look at it.
“I do think it’s potentially an opportunity to gather additional information,” said board member Sandy Arkell. “Last year we were maybe a little disappointed” with various aspects of the survey.
The board members agreed to review a draft of the new survey and to circulate their comments for changes, which they will review and further discuss at another special meeting on Feb. 1.
An exact date for starting the survey has not been set yet, but will be announced once the public has had time to access and digest specific budget proposals by the BOE and BOS.
Want to follow the Board of Finance, Board of Education and Board of Selectmen as they develop their FY’24 budget proposals? All meetings are open to the public, with portions of the meeting dedicated to public comment. The meeting calendar and agendas (which include Zoom links for the meetings) can be found on the Town website. The boards also welcome emails from the public.