There’s a pretty direct line between what YOU pay in taxes, and next week’s Annual Town Meeting, on Tuesday, May 7.
Here’s the simplest explanation for how that works: Town elected officials have proposed a budget to run the town and the schools for FY2020. Now, it’s up to residents and property owners to vote on whether or not to adopt that proposed budget. Once the budget is adopted, that’s how the town determines how much to tax each property owner in order to fund the budget.
So it’s pretty clear, if YOU want a say in what you’re willing to pay in taxes, you need to do two things:
- Come to the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. at the Clune Center Auditorum to finalize the proposed budget, and
- Vote, either after the meeting ends on Tuesday evening or when voting continues all day Saturday, May 11, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. also at the Clune Center.
What Happens at the Town Meeting, and Why Should I Go?
The Annual Town Meeting is the clearest opportunity for Wilton residents to set the course for the town–their input and votes directly impact how much residents pay in taxes, and how the town spends those tax dollars.
Wilton’s form of government is the Town Meeting–basically, anyone who owns property gets a say. It’s the one time each year all the residents get together, for each to add his or her voice to the chorus to make this big, major budget-setting decision.
Things kick off a little differently this year–officials have changed the order of events. First off, they’ll present the four bonding resolutions–the four projects for which the town would like to borrow money. Those are:
- $3,398,150 for road and parking lot paving
- $350,000 for the Town Hall roof replacement
- $600,000 for the School District roof replacement program
- $1,300,000 for the bridge replacement program
The public can make comments or ask questions, but these items are not up for any floor votes for approval from the public.
Then, they’ll segue into discussing the operating bugdet.
Town officials will run through all the budget numbers. Jeffrey Rutishauser, the chair of the Board of Finance, will present an overview of the town’s current finances; he will then explain the mill rate the BoF has set and the proposed FY2020 tax rate increase–this year, a 1.24% mill rate increase over last year. First selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice will review the Board of Selectmen budget, and Christine Finkelstein, chair of the Board of Education, will cover the school budget.
The mill rate is going up despite the total town budget being presented for FY20202 decreasing over last year. The total budget for operating expenses is $126,787,380. (For a detailed look at how the budget was set, read our prior coverage.) That breaks down as follows:
- Board of Selectmen Operating budget: $32,542,102
- Board of Selectmen Capital: $959,897
- TOTAL Board of Selectmen: $33,510,999 (0.0% increase over FY’19)
- Board of Education budget: $81,876,563 (0.0% increase over FY’19)
- Debt Service: $10,153,497
- Charter Authority: $1,255,321
But those are the proposed numbers. Now, it’s the Town Meeting’s turn–all the residents and property owners eligible to vote have to decide whether those are the numbers the town should consider.
That’s when YOUR participation becomes important.
Speak Up, Speak Out, and Have YOUR Say
The presentations will be followed by public comment. Speakers will be limited to three minutes. People can make motions from the floor and discussion has to follow Robert’s Rules of Order.
According to the Town Charter, the only motion to change the budget during the meeting can be one that reduces it. No one can make a motion to increase it. To change the education budget, someone can only make a motion to reduce the total BoE budget; to amend the town’s budget, he or she can make motions to reduce specific line items of the BoS budget.
There will inevitably be discussion, disagreement and efforts to reduce the budget further at the meeting, as some residents feel strongly that the budget as proposed would mean too big of a tax increase. There will also be calls to protect the budget as it has been proposed by town officials.
Any motion can be discussed and needs to be approved by a majority of residents present at the meeting. If residents want their voices heard and want to either make a motion to reduce a part of the budget or protect the budget as it stands right now, the best and most important thing to do is to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Eventually, by the end of Tuesday night’s town meeting (the event), the Town Meeting (the voters present at the event)–must eventually decide by a majority to lock-in a proposed budget for all voters to consider on the ballot. That could take a while, but whether it’s the budget as originally proposed at the beginning of the meeting by the Board of Finance or one that gets changed during the meeting, there will be an accepted budget for voters to consider at the end of the evening.
Once that budget gets locked in, the Annual Town Meeting ends–and voting begins.
Here’s who is eligible to vote:
- All registered Wilton voters are eligible to vote on the budget and any additional referendum questions.
- All resident or nonresident owners of real property—or a motor vehicle—valued at $1,000 or more on Wilton’s last completed Grand List.
- In all cases, voters must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old.
People who are ineligible to vote can attend, but guests will be completely segregated from voters–they’ll enter through different doors and sit in separate areas of the auditorium. Voters will be given a colored card to display when votes are taken, and only voters in the designated sections will be counted.
So, WHAT are we voting on?
The main question on the ballot concerns the proposed budget will read as follows, and voters will have only three options from which to choose:
Shall the budget and tax rate for the Fiscal Year 2019, as recommended by the Board of Finance, or as amended by the Town Meeting, be:
- REJECTED BECAUSE IT IS TOO HIGH
- REJECTED BECAUSE IT IS TOO LOW
Then each of the bonding projects is a separate voting question.
You can see the sample ballot, below.
When can I vote?
If you are eligible to vote, than by all means, you should show up at one of the two possible times you can vote. And if you can’t make it, at least vote by absentee ballot. It’s your town, your taxes, your property values, your schools, your roads, … you get the point.
If you can’t make the meeting Tuesday night, May 7, you can shop up at the polls on Saturday, May 11. Machine voting takes place from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. at the Wilton High School Clune Center (395 Danbury Rd.).
Even if you attend Tuesday night’s meeting and vote during the discussion to set the proposed budget–if you do not stay until the end to cast a machine ballot, you still need to finish the process and vote on the final budget.
Voting only takes five minutes. If you plan to be out and about on a busy Saturday–on the sports sidelines, running errands, entertaining visiting guests, whatever the reason–make sure getting to the polls and voting fits into your day.
If you can’t make either of those times, you can still vote by absentee ballot, which are available in the town clerk’s office, 238 Danbury Rd., between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 8 through Friday, May 10. Completed absentee ballots must be returned to the town clerk’s office no later than 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 10.
Then the budget is set?
Not so fast.
If fewer than 15% of eligible voters turn out to vote, the budget will automatically pass—no matter the outcome of the actual vote. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to stay away from the polls because “not voting is like saying you think the budget should pass.” It’s never a guarantee.
Look at what happened in 2015, when the majority of those who voted cast a “No, Too High” vote, but the budget passed as originally proposed because only 11.5% of eligible voters actually voted. In 2016 there was an 18% voter turnout, but a lot of that was likely driven by a bonding question about a turf field–and a big push from sports booster groups to get voters in support to the polls. Last year, Wilton got a turnout of only 13%.
If the budget is rejected as either too high or too low, the budget then returns to the Board of Finance which will consult with the members of the BoS and BoE and come back to the Town Meeting with a revised budget. The only options then will be ‘approve’ or ‘reduce’; it cannot be rejected outright.