COVID May Delay or Change 2021 Annual Town Meeting and Budget Process, Again

In 2020, COVID-19 forced Wilton to cancel its Annual Town Meeting and vote, taking residents out of the formal process of setting the town’s annual budget.

Now, like their counterparts in towns across Connecticut, Wilton’s town officials are anticipating another likely change to how and when this year’s annual budget process will take place–again thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The subject was the central focus at Tuesday night’s special meeting of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen. The discussion was motivated both by the Town Charter-driven need to begin scheduling the 2021 budget calendar as well as moves at the state level that will permit towns to make accommodations.

“We are expecting an executive order from the governor that will allow–presumably it’s going to be the BOS–to change the timetable for the budget, to deviate from what is in the charter. and… that will allow us to decide whether, obviously in consultation with the health director, with Barry [Bogle], whether we should be having an in-person town meeting. If the answer is no, or if we feel that we have to do it in a hybrid manner so that you could reduce the number of people present, we’re going to have that flexibility,” First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice explained.

One of the possible options to consider includes having only town officials involved in the budget setting process, as was done in 2020. Both the BOS and the Board of Education would submit their proposed budgets to the Board of Finance for approval–or changes–without any formal town vote process but allowing for solicited feedback from residents.

Another possibility would be to hold only a town meeting vote for residents without any in-person town meeting.

Vanderslice said she’s canvassing her fellow first selectmen and neighboring town leaders about what they are planning to do.

“Some are thinking about having [a meeting] outside. So you want a Saturday, you might have it on the football field and you’d have limited capacity,” she said, adding that it would also require a hybrid version including video to allow anyone unable to attend in-person to participate.

Until any executive order from the governor is issued, however, the BOS still has to follow the timetable laid out by the Town Charter, which mandates a deadline of Feb. 1 for setting the Annual Town Meeting date within the first seven days of May–unless ‘extraordinary circumstances’ necessitate a deviation.

Vanderslice recommended that the BOS tentatively set Saturday, May 8 as a possible Town Meeting date–pending any executive orders or changes from the governor. But with so much unknown about the progress of vaccines and what state rules will permit for large gatherings by that point in the year, details would still be up in the air.

“Realistically, if we were having a town meeting, we would have to have it during the day and we would have to [meet outside], because we’re not going to have it inside a building with, with that large of a turnout. I don’t even know that we could under the sector rules, but we would have to do something outside, like on the football field or something. So you would want to do it on a Saturday during the sunlight, not in the dark in the evening,” Vanderslice explained.

If Gov. Ned Lamont does issue an executive order allowing town officials to make further changes to town meetings, Vanderslice would recommend the town extend the entire budget-setting process by one month.

“[BOF Chair] Jeff Rutishauser, [BOE Chair] Debbie Low, [School Superintendent] Kevin Smith and I all met. We were all in total agreement about that, that we would like more time just so we will know a little bit more about what our requirements are going to be, and a little bit better sense of [the pandemic’s status],” Vanderslice said.

She also acknowledged that 30 additional days would also mean more people would have been vaccinated and officials would have more information about what both the town and school district would likely need to incorporate in their budgets for the following year based on the progress of the pandemic.

Vanderslice anticipates that there will be more concrete information on the governor’s plans in time for the BOS’s next meeting on Feb. 1.

“They do realize that the budget clocks are ticking, so hopefully by our next meeting, that executive order will be out and then we can firm up our meeting dates,” she said.

The BOS approved setting the Annual Town Meeting for Saturday, May 8–for now, pending any changes or orders made by Lamont.