On Saturday, March 21Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order that will change this year’s budget process for Wilton and many of CT’s municipalities. His order gives town officials the ability to approve the budget–including for both town spending and school spending–for Fiscal Year 2021, without having to bring it to voters at an Annual Town Meeting.

“Just as my administration is working tirelessly to protect the health and safety of Connecticut residents, so to are our local mayors and first selectmen,” Lamont told the CT Mirror. “During this unprecedented public health pandemic, it’s vital that we provide our local leaders with procedural relief.”

The order allows the Board of Selectmen to authorize the Board of Finance as the town’s budget-making authority to adopt a budget for the July 1, 2020-June 30, 2021 fiscal year and to set a mill rate. Under the order they can do so without any public in-person votes or adoption requirements, such as the annual town meeting, a referendum or special town meeting.

For Wilton, the order does not give the Board of Education any approval rights. The budget setting role will rest entirely in the hands of the Board of Finance.

The Board of Finance would have to comply with the modified public meeting requirements that Lamont outlined in an earlier executive order on March 14. Saturday’s order also instructs the town to “take all reasonable steps to publicize the draft municipal budget”–including publishing the draft on the town’s website–and soliciting public comment by email or other means.

Towns across the state have been nervous about what the COVID-19 pandemic impacts would mean for their ability to adopt a budget–typically something they’d already be very engaged in doing. Wilton had a public hearing on both BOS and BOE proposed budgets scheduled for Monday, March 23, but that has now been cancelled.

Until now there was no mechanism in place that towns could follow heading toward May, when new fiscal year budgets get approved–either to get budgets passed according to current laws or to protect public health. That left towns and municipal leaders very anxious about both fiscal health and personal safety, when the only accepted way to pass a budget–large town meetings and open voting–would endanger residents and town employees.

“Clearly, protecting the health and safety of the public is our towns’ number one concern right now. But towns also need to be positioned to get their communities back on track once the pandemic is over. Having a budget in place will allow towns to do that,” said “Towns have been very nervous about heading into the new fiscal year without a budget,” said Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns to CT News Junkie.

Eliminating the process of taxpayer budget approval is likely not going to sit well with the public. Gara told CT News Junkie that towns understand that.

“We are confident that towns will be very mindful of the need to ensure that the public has the opportunity to view and comment on the proposed budget, even if they can’t attend the town meeting or vote at the polls,” she said.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, tweeted that his group worked with the governor on the order. “A lot of people were able to provide input on this process. It’s probably not perfect and will probably require some modifications in future executive orders if we find anything we missed, but generally this is something we support and are appreciative of.”