One of the most unusual budget seasons is about to draw to a close, as the Board of Finance voted Monday night (June 1) to approve the revised FY2021 budget proposal, reflecting a mill rate of 27.4616–a year-over-year decrease of 3.77% over FY2020.

The Town’s FY21 Total Operating Requirement (the total of the Board of Education budget, the Board of Selectmen budget, Debt Service, and Reserves) actually increased $457,107 (0.36%) from last year to a total of $127,244,487.

The BOS budget decreased 2.66% and the BOE budget was flat to FY2020. Debt Service also fell 11.21%. Town officials decided to significantly increase Reserves–by 527%–in anticipation of potential financial risks to the town associated with COVID-19.

However, the amount that taxpayers need to fund decreased from FY2020 by 3.33%, to $116,406,384.

That decrease in total funding requirement of $4,006,549 is largely driven by savings from both the BOE and BOS, and higher revenues.

The budget proposal that the BOF approved was very different from the original budgets compiled by the BOS and the BOE, before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both boards submitted proposals that asked for increases over FY2020. Once it became clear how deep the impact of the public health crisis would be on state, town, and resident finances, officials went back to put together revised budget requests.

In large part, the members of the BOF supported the revised proposed budget because a significant majority of emails they received from residents supported the budget proposal. BOF chairman Jeffrey Rutishauser tallied the emails and told his board that 70% of the emails they had received were in favor of passing the budget without any further cuts.

In addition, he said that the responses were similar to how residents voted in the prior two Annual Town Votes.

“The ratio of letters is roughly equal to the approvals that we’ve had at the past two Annual Town Meetings when we’ve held them in person. So I thought that that was reasonably representative of the people,” he said.

Rutishauser’s colleague, Michael Kaelin, told his fellow BOF members that he had also tallied emails from residents, with a slightly different matrix–he eliminated duplicates, and reported support from 80% of those who wrote in, especially from residents who supported the Board of Education budget in particular.

“Well, it’s overwhelming,” Rutishauser replied. “Whether we say 70% or 80%, does it really matter?” He added, “The majority of support really focused on, ‘I support the Board of Ed and were silent on the Board of Selectmen. But there was significant numbers in favor of what we put on the website, over those that wanted to reduce it further. That’s the key takeaway.”

Comments from BOF Members

Chris Stroup: I endorse both the BOS and BOE budgets as they were presented to the BOF. The town provides essential and exceptional services to our citizens–education public safety, and community engagement, and support. Our spending and by extension our taxing decisions reflect our values. The feedback from voters has been quite clear. A significant majority value our public schools and strongly endorsed the BOE approved budget and the limit limited objections to the BOS approved budget largely resulted from reductions in spending for the library, Trackside and transfer station.

After this process ends we need to develop three contingency plans… to fund what might be extraordinary spending in 2021, even beyond the reserves that we are likely to allocate.

We need a … plan to help our fellow neighbors who may be underemployed or unemployed. And I think we need to recognize that the modest reduction in mill rate that we’re likely to approve will not provide those households with the support they need where they just suffer a profound or protracted reduction in household income.

Stewart Koenigsberg: I’d like to thank Lynne [Vanderslice, first selectwoman], the Board of Selectmen, and all departments who did an extraordinary job in terms of coming up with not only flat but a reduction of 1.75% in the revised budget. I think there’ve been some tremendous sacrifices made and some tough choices on the parts of those departments and the BOS. I think they’ve done a great job.”

For the Board of Education, given that we started this process at a much higher set of numbers and for the BOE to go back and for all voting members to approve a flat budget for this year, was a big achievement for that board relative to prior years.

Kaelin: My main objective tonight was not to speak for myself, but the people that elected us and the people that live in this town and the people that pay taxes. And that’s why I spent so much time going through the emails that were sent to us because we’re really in this unprecedented situation where the six of us are taking the place of the Town Meeting, where ordinarily every registered voter and every property owner get to vote.

I don’t think there’s any doubt in any of our minds that if we were conducting the town meeting this year and some[one] was to make a motion to cut the school budget, it would be overwhelmingly rejected. I want everybody to understand, the reason why I’m strongly supporting the school budget and I’m strongly supporting all the budgets is because that’s what my constituents tell me loud and clear.

Every single email we got from a realtor…was advocating in favor of us approving the budgets and maintaining the quality of services in town. That makes this such a great place to live and a great place to buy your home. So I’m strongly supporting the budgets.

Kevin Gardiner: I did go into this personally feeling like we needed to make sure we maintain our investment in the education of our town. And it was great to get so many responses from the town because I wasn’t sure if we’d hear from people unless they were violently opposed or absolutely in favor, and sometimes you don’t hear from folks in the middle–but it seems like we heard from a lot.

Peter Balderston:  I am supporting both budgets, but with some reservations.

Just to get the facts out and to get a sense of what we’re talking about on a per-pupil expenditure basis, which is how I look at the school budget, largely because we’re in our 12th year of enrollment declines. This year is projected to be down 2.4%….we have to adjust our budgeting accordingly.

I recognize that there are new paradigms with respect to education and stuff like that, that are requiring more spending and stuff like that; special ed is another driver of increases. So when we say we’re keeping the budget flat to this year, we’re in fact increasing per-pupil spending by 2.4%.

It really pains me when people talk about how we’re cutting the budget and we’re hollowing out the school. Unlike Westport, Darien, New Canaan, we are half as rich as those towns (measured in both per capita grand list and in income). So the burden on our taxpayers is that much higher. I always try to keep that focus when I’m doing the numbers and not just jumping to the emotional over cutting the budget. I wish that we could have a little bit more informed discussion about the numbers rather than just flagellating ourselves around emotional issues.

It is really hard for me to reconcile how we have squirreled away a lot of reserves for, um, some yet unknowns. So when we squirrel away all these funds for as yet unknown hardship, but then continue to fund our budgets as if there is really not much to speak of with respect to how it’s going to impact, well, I don’t understand that. It doesn’t reconcile for me.

Rutishauser:  We don’t know whether the expenses will be higher than what they budgeted or lower than what they budgeted. We just don’t know. And anyone says that they do know isn’t telling the truth. So the only way to work on that is to go in with enough reserves and flexibility that we can handle a wide array of outcomes. And that’s the responsibility of account leaders to make sure we have enough provisions.

The Board of Finance will meet tonight at 7 p.m. to formalize its decisions and pass resolutions adopting the elements of the budget.