The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed this year’s budget setting process, not just for Wilton but for every Connecticut municipality. Wilton’s budget will be decided by the Board of Finance, rather than by Annual Town Meeting and Vote, as decreed by an executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont.

Tonight’s Board of Finance meeting signals the final phase before Wilton’s FY2021 budget will be set by June 4, one month later than was originally scheduled to happen.

Anticipating that significantly difficult economic conditions will impact both Town and individual residents’ finances as a result of the public health emergency, the Board of Finance has asked the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education to provide four budget scenarios:  flat (0% increase) to the FY2020 budget; and decreases from the FY2020 budget of -2%, -5% and -10%.

Monday night (May 11) the members of the Board of Selectmen ran through what cuts they’d make depending on which of four potential budget scenarios the Board of Finance would choose.

Last week (Thursday, May 7) the Board of Education adopted the scenarios they prepared for the Board of Finance.

Tonight, the Board of Finance will discuss those options, when they hear from First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Superintendent Kevin Smith about what such scenarios would look like for the town and the schools. The meeting will be held virtually on Zoom, and residents can view the discussion. The BOF members will propose a mill rate and consider proposed budgets, and afterward will post a summary on the town’s website.

Residents will be able–and are being encouraged–to contact the BOF by email with their opinions, through Monday, June 1. This will be the only way for residents to have input, have an impact, and have their voices heard by town officials on this year’s budget process.

The BOF members will eventually decide when they deliberate on the mill rate in meetings June 1-3.

Board of Selectmen

Pre-COVID-19 Proposed FY2021 budget:  $33.9 million 1.22% increase over FY2020 ($32.5 million)

Post-COVID-19 Proposed FY2021 budget:

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice prepared materials for a flat to FY2020 and -2% reduction, that she will present to the BOF. Those materials are available online.

When the Board of Selectmen adopted its original FY2021 budget, it did so with the understanding that the budget contained a potential $300,000 shortfall if all the town employees didn’t move to the State Partnership Health Plan. At the time, the self-insured plan had a 12% forecasted allocation rate increase versus FY2020.

With further reductions now being requested in the Board of Selectmen’s budget, the board can no longer assume that budget risk. The most recent forecasted allocation increase is 8% versus FY2020; those additional health benefit costs have been added to the budget in all four scenarios.

Two anticipated COVID-19 costs that can’t yet be quantified are employee testing and consultants for contract tracing. They remain a risk to the FY2021 budget of up to $500,000 or more.

Proposals to keep BOS budget flat to FY2020:

New Costs (additions) – $671,272

  • $35,000 Field and Tennis monitors (Parks & Rec) to maintain social distance regulations
  • $15,000 Town Counsel for COVID-19 related issues
  • $367,844 Health Department additional 1.5 employees (contract tracing will use school nurses, with additional costs TBD)
  • $253,428 Group Insurance
  • ($250,000+ possible) Employee COVID-19 testing (if, who and frequency hasn’t been determined)

Cost Reductions (savings) – $757,098  Included among these are:

  • $57,225  Close Merwin Meadows through summer 2020, eliminate swimming
  • Comstock:  Parks & Rec working on small-scale summer childcare/camp; the scope of savings is still TBD
  • Dial-Ride:  Town is awaiting determination of when the service will resume, likely not soon
  • $30,000:  First Selectwoman 20% salary reduction
  • $29,000:  Flower basket watering won’t be outsourced, for savings to Economic Development budget; Parks & Grounds personnel will take on the task
  • $38,879:  Salaries and group insurance savings from delay in hiring to fill a vacancy
  • $1,000:  post legal notices online rather than in print/newspaper
  • $11,100:  Eliminate part-time Environmental Affairs summer employee for Schenck’s Island
  • $3,000:  Educational assistance canceled by Building Dept. employee
  • $6,400:  Overtime savings by reducing Planning & Zoning employee attendance at meetings
  • $114,500:  Highway Dept. salt/maintenance budget remaining from FY2020 due to mild winter
  • $30,000:  Highway Dept. rails/materials FY2020 funding good through FY2021
  • $25,875:  Partial-Year Closing of senior center due to COVID-19
  • $262,719:  Transfer Station change in operations and reduced hours to the public
  • $50,000:  Operating Capital (purchase delays)
  • $30,000:  new pricing for vehicle fuel
  • $16,000:  new pricing for building fuel

Places where there are NO changes

  • Planning & Zoning:  seen as “not a good time to reduce funding”
  • Environmental affairs:  only $19,500 reduced, maintaining $40,000 for work along River Rd., “something very popular with residents, and prioritized over grants to non-profits.”

Reductions for Non-Town Departments (non-profits)

Proposals to Reduce FY2020 by -2%

On top of the cuts outlined for the “flat” scenario, the Board of Selectmen proposed the following additional reductions to bring the budget further down by 2% ($670,040):

  • $100,741:  from the Wilton Library–the BOS believes the library has the ability to fundraise this amount
  • $55,334:  completely eliminate any grant from the town to Trackside; the BOS believes programming provided by the non-profit could be provided by Parks & Rec
  • $150,000:  from employee vacancies not filled
  • $70,000:  reduce all non-emergency personnel by 5-hours per week
  • $46,056:  completely eliminate Merwin Meadows as a swimming area, and convert it to a fishing area
  • $34,000:  eliminate training in all departments
  • $40,000:  Planning & Zoning; Environmental Affairs
  • $11,500:  Cancel the town’s membership in CCM (CT Conference of Municipalities)
  • $162,719:  Close the Transfer Station:  the town can pay another town to take Wilton recyclables/resident trash, and residents can privately contract with another town or haulers.

Proposals to Reduce FY2020 by -5%

To reduce the FY2020 budget down a total of -5%, the BOS determined they would need to cut an additional $1 million on top of the cuts outlined in the first two scenarios.

“If we get to the point where we really need to do a 5% [cut] because our revenues are down that bad, that the world has really gone crazy and people are still out of work, people still have no income, the stock market’s really off–that’s going to be cutting significantly into the services we provide. Our emergency services and our frontline employees. It’s going to be a painful cut in terms of the services we provide to the citizens,” Selectwoman Deb McFadden said.

One area they said they’d be reluctant to cut would be critical services like police and fire personnel, or DPW employees in the winter. Where residents might see cuts instead would be reducing staff so that the Town Clerk’s office or Planning and Zoning might only be open two days a week.

The BOS decided to split that million-dollar reduction between the library and job eliminations. The members based their calculation on estimating each employee salary at $100,000.

They also agreed that while cutting the library would be difficult, the library stood more of a chance to fundraise.

“Libraries can fundraise and I can’t fundraise to hire, to have a town clerk five days a week,” Vanderslice said.

McFadden agreed. “We can’t fundraise for our town employees and they provide essential services. So I can’t see us cutting nine employees and still funding the library at that level. I just can’t say that is appropriate,” she said, adding, “As much as I love and adore the library, our first responsibility is to the town’s structure. You need to fund our employees to provide a central service. We can’t lose nine or 10 employees.”

The BOS ultimately decided to propose reducing the library’s budget an additional $500,000 and eliminate five employees for the 5% reduction scenario.

Proposals to Reduce FY2020 by -10%

The Selectmen said that such a scenario–reducing FY2020 by 10%, or $1.7 million–would be catastrophic. The exercise of putting together a potential 10% reduction scenario was originally requested by BOF member Chris Stroup.

“At 10%, that’s a very uncomfortable conversation. And one that, when Chris Stroup said, let’s do a 10% scenario, he wanted people to truly understand that 10%, but this town on the edge of a precipice puts us over the precipice,” Selectman Ross Tartell said.

The BOS determined that the library would become a critical service if the town found itself in a situation where a 10% reduction were required.

“I would probably take less from the library. Maybe you’d only take 10% from the library because you are going to be dependent on a lot of the services that it provides. If you do that, then you’re eliminating the equivalent of 14 employees,” Vanderslice explained.