As the budget planning process for FY2023 continues to unfold, officials are coming to terms with some stark realities that include, on one hand, several pressing needs for facility repairs and other capital spending projects at Wilton schools (especially Middlebrook School and Wilton High School) and on the other hand, mounting budget pressures and potential mill rate increases that seem likely to reach a tipping point for many Wilton taxpayers.
That was the primary takeaway from a tri-board meeting Monday night, Feb. 28, convened by officials representing Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS), Board of Finance (BOF) and Board of Education (BOE).
The meeting, which took place in person at Comstock Community Center, was video-recorded, but unfortunately did not capture any audio. GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to the leadership of the three boards for their assessments of the meeting.
Validating Short-term Needs
In preparation for the sit-down discussion part of the meeting, the members of the three boards toured Middlebrook and WHS to see firsthand the facilities’ current conditions.
The tour also included the Cider Mill School, which served as the example of repairs and renovations that have already been completed, in contrast to those deferred at Middlebrook and WHS.
There was consensus among the three boards that the projects being proposed in the FY2023 budget — ranging from asbestos removal, lighting updates, ceiling tile replacement, moisture mitigation, painting, and elevator replacements — are in fact needed in the short term.
BOF Chair Michael Kaelin summarized his assessment of the needs.
“All of this has to get done, and on a near-term timetable,” Kaelin told GMW. “These are not discretionary things, these are necessities.”
Implications for BOE’s Operating Capital Budget
Vanderslice noted that the cost of the various projects could not be bonded, and would need to be funded through the BOE’s operating budget. In all, the BOE has identified over $5 million in operating capital requirements over the next five years.
Based on earlier cost estimates, the more immediate BOE projects at Middlebrook and WHS would amount to $458,000 — and possibly more, as some estimates were made some time ago.
Updating three elevators would be a top priority, due to related building code changes, at a total cost of over $700,000 over the next three years. A WHS elevator would be budgeted for FY2023 ($203,000, based on a Jan. 2022 estimate), followed by a second elevator at Cider Mill in FY2024 and the third at the district’s Central Office in FY2025.
A similar phased approach was outlined for $2.6 million in other projects at WHS and nearly $2 million at Middlebrook over the next three to five years.
Beyond the WHS elevator, only $255,000 for projects at Middlebrook would be slated for FY2023.
Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith told the boards he would investigate spreading some projects out even further, up to seven years.
Beyond the FY2023 Budget
BOE Chair Deborah Low characterized the Feb. 28 meeting as “a helpful and collaborative discussion,” but concerns about the budgets beyond just FY2023 appear to be heightening.
Vanderslice told GMW the Feb. 28 meeting revealed that the BOE’s FY2024 projected operating capital request of $1.7 million would result in a 1.5% increase in the mill rate. Adding to that pressure, Vanderslice is also anticipating higher-than-usual budget increases that year due to inflation — impacting both the BOS and BOE budgets — resulting in what she believes would be an “unacceptable increase” in taxes for Wilton residents.
Vanderslice also pointed out that 2023 will be a revaluation year for property owners.
“Residential values are expected to increase and commercial values to decrease, meaning a shift from commercial to residential taxpayers, meaning an even higher impact on most residential taxpayers,” Vanderslice told GMW.
She noted that commercial property currently accounts for 20% of the Town’s grand list.
Vanderslice said the tri-board meeting highlighted what she feels will be “difficult decisions” for the BOF for this year and next year, recognizing that the BOF will have to weigh the identified budget needs with what residents say they want and their willingness to assume the resulting property tax burden.
Vanderslice emphasized that residents have come to expect lean budgets and low (if any) mill rate increases, but stopped short of saying what she thought the mill rate tipping point might be.
“That’s our job on the Board of Finance,” Kaelin told GMW. “We need to deliberate on all this. We’re not going to make any decisions until we all talk about this.”
Kaelin said the BOF is only just beginning its deliberations on the budget requests submitted by both the BOS and BOE for FY2023.
“We need to look at everything in the Board of Selectmen budget, everything in the Board of Ed. budget, look at all of our sources of revenue, and then decide what we collectively [as a board] think we can afford and what the taxpayers are going to pay,” Kaelin said.
“That hasn’t been done yet, and it’s not supposed to be done yet,” Kaelin continued, with a reminder that the public hearings on the two budgets (BOE budget on March 23 and BOS budget on March 24) have not yet occurred.
Though the BOF does not have line-item authority over the BOE budget, it does have the power to tell the BOE what budget dollars they may have. Kaelin told GMW he hasn’t ruled out asking the BOE for cuts in other areas of the budget to offset some of the operating capital expenses.
“We may have to cut something else in the budget,” Kaelin said. “We have to look at everything, and prioritize. That’s really what [the BOF] is asked to do.”
The next regular BOF meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, March 8, followed by a special meeting to review the BOS budget on March 15.