The Board of Finance (BOF) met with the Board of Selectmen (BOS) on Tuesday evening (March 16), as Wilton’s budget planning process continues to unfold.

The BOF received First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice’s initial FY2022 budget request of $33,943,486 shortly after the BOS voted to adopt the budget on March 3.

Since then, the BOF has been scrutinizing the proposed budget, which represented an increase of $1,027,762 (3.12%) over the FY2021 budget.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Vanderslice was already prepared, based on new information, to bring the budget request down. First, she eliminated $130,000 that had been set aside in reserve for the Wilton Library grant, after determining that the library’s federal PPP loan of $130,000 for wages would be forgiven. In addition, she identified another $203,000 in savings to reduce the BOS’s original budget proposal even further.

Moreover, Vanderslice reported that several proposed budget items totaling $125,0000 would be covered by the $5.3 million the town will receive from the American Rescue Plan, including “the $100,000 for broadband/cell service consultants, the $15,000 for economic development initiatives and the $10,000 for an economic development part-time employee”.

That $125,000 figure could potentially increase, as details about the new American Rescue Plan are still forthcoming. Vanderslice believes that additional budget items, such as some Health Department salaries, may potentially be covered by the new funding.

With those recommendations, which the BOS unanimously supported, the town’s proposed budget increase was reduced from the 3.12% originally requested to 1.73%.

“In Very Good Shape”

In his opening comments, BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser offered praise for the BOS work on the budget. “I think your budget was presented in very good shape,” he said.

He cited the fact that the budget submitted to the BOF contained detailed notes on a line-by-line basis, offering valuable explanations. “They’re extremely useful in going through the budget and answering a good number of the questions we otherwise would ask at a session tonight.”

He felt that it was important for residents to know those explanations were there. “So as it is people in town don’t see it, but we do see it.”

Despite the abundant detail, the BOF still found much to discuss. Unlike this year’s Board of Education budget process, which allowed little time for analysis or questions, the BOF assembled numerous questions about the BOS budget, ranging from relatively small line items to long-term, strategic issues.

Editor’s Note: Some questions were submitted to Vanderslice in advance of the meeting, to which she responded in writing, while others were discussed during the meeting. GOOD Morning Wilton‘s coverage below includes both.

Key Question: Wage Increases

One key question pertained to the 4.12% increase in wages. The BOF questioned whether this was cause for concern for future increases.

Vanderslice pointed out that over the last six years, a significant number of town employees retired and were replaced with employees at lower wages. “Newer union employees receive both a general wage increase and an annual step increase as they gain more work experience. Once they reach the top step, they receive only a general wage increase,” she said, adding, “Again, those increases are on a lower base.”

Vanderslice explained the approach the BOS tries to take when it comes to vacant positions. In many cases, those positions are “not unfilled, but consolidated,” she said during the meeting. In other words, when a vacancy arises, either through retirement or other departures, the BOS takes the opportunity to examine whether the position could be eliminated or combined with another position.

Vanderslice gave numerous examples of these situations, including several high-level positions, such as the finance director for the schools and the town CFO becoming a shared CFO with BOE and BOS. Such consolidation offers both departments budget savings.

In further explaining the 4.12% wage increase, Vanderslice pointed out that the FY2022 budget includes wages restored from 2021, such as the town swim program wages (not incurred during the pandemic) and reinstating the first selectwoman’s temporary salary decrease, among other items.

Lower Medical Insurance Costs?

The BOF noted that medical insurance costs are actually lower in the FY2022 budget.

Vanderslice explained that much of the savings was due to a move to the State Partnership Program insurance plan in which costs for medical benefits were reduced by roughly 20%. Even the slight (3%) premium increase is favorable compared to previous years for Wilton employees, although Vanderslice noted, “it is hard to predict future premium increases.”

More Reassurance

The BOF was also looking for a measure of confidence in some of the large line items, such as $550,000 in Building Permits revenue and $463,000 in ECS (Education Cost Sharing) from the state. As Vanderslice provided rationale and affirmed her confidence in the estimates, the BOF seemed satisfied.

Smaller items were by no means left off the table for discussion. There was even a question from the BOF about tree-trimming. Vanderslice confirmed that the budget for contracting for tree removal has increased to $125,000 per year and said, “The Town has historically under-budgeted tree work. There is a greater urgency to address this due to residents’ increasing reliance on the internet.”

A $140,000 excavator was also questioned by the BOF. Vanderslice noted that the town owns two, and one is being replaced. They are used for rebuilding road drainage systems, loading salt into plow trucks, and clearing debris after storms, among other purposes. “We absolutely need two,” she insisted. “Three would help at times, though it would not be needed all year.”

On the Horizon, But Not in the Budget

The town has two sizable initiatives on the horizon:  renovation of Wilton Police headquarters and public safety radio system upgrades. Neither are far along enough in their planning to be reflected in the FY2022 budget.

As for the police headquarters, Vanderslice said, “Police headquarters is our largest potential project, but it has not been finalized. We hope to bring that to a Special Town Meeting in [late] October.”

The radio system, she explained, “is a required replacement of the public safety radio system, used by police, fire, EMS and adding DPW. Last year’s five-year capital plan reflected a bonding request at this May’s Annual Town Meeting. That request has been delayed for several reasons.”

For one reason, the options for the system (upgrading Wilton’s existing system, collaborating with another town, or joining a state network) are quite complex and require further analysis. She went on to say that the project could also be an allowable expenditure under the American Rescue Plan grant (again, the rules for that spending have not yet been provided).

While those projects may be further out on the planning horizon, the BOF expressed a desire for other bonded projects to take advantage of today’s low-interest rates, if at all possible. Vanderslice agreed to analyze potential savings for upcoming projects like road paving and roof replacements before the BOF meeting on April 5.

BOF Sees “A Tight Ship”

Rutishauser was pleased with how the budgets are shaping up. As the BOE and BOS budgets are now in focus, the BOF will prepare for deliberations on the mill rate used to calculate taxes for residents.

“With a major effort on behalf of the Board of Education to bring their budget down and the selectmen to do likewise, it’s brought it into a range that I think is a lot more attractive for us than where we started. So I have to thank you to the Board of Selectmen for running a very tight ship, and the Board of Ed for finding ways in their budget to reduce it as well.”

One scenario presented during the meeting was a mill rate calculation of 28.1, which would amount to a two-year average decrease of -0.76%.

Rutishauser thought the two-year perspective was the right one to take, given how atypical the year of the COVID-19 pandemic has been. “This means that we’re doing better, as Lynne said, than we did two years ago, if we just look right through the year of COVID, and  I’d have to say that’s extraordinary, it is truly extraordinary for how far [the BOS] have brought it this year. So thank you to get us to that point.”

Next Steps

A public hearing on the proposed Board of Education budget will be held on March 29.

A public hearing on the proposed BOS budget will be held on March 30.

BOF mill rate deliberations are scheduled for April 6-7.

All meetings are open to the public, but are being held on Zoom during the pandemic.  Look for Zoom links on the town or BOE websites, on the respective meeting agendas.