On Tuesday evening March 31, the Wilton Board of Finance approved the 2015-16 budgets as proposed by the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen. They also began deliberations for setting the mill rate–the basis for the taxes Wilton residents will pay next year to fund the town budget. The mill rate will be finalized at a meeting of the BoF tonight (Wednesday, April 1) at Town Hall beginning at 7:30 p.m..
Once the mill rate and budget numbers are finalized, the Board of Finance will bring the budget to the town at the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 5. Town residents will then begin voting on whether or not to approve the proposed budget that evening and adjourned voting will continue on Saturday, May 9.
Board of Education
In evaluating the budget submitted by the Board of Education, at $79,956,024, which was an increase of 1.98-percent over the prior year, BoF chair Warren Serenbetz began the discussion by complimenting the BoE.
“They did a good job, and 1.98 [percent], while in excess of our [recommended] 1.75 percent, I think it showed real good faith effort, which I think should be rewarded by saying, ‘Thank you very much and we accept that as your budget going forward,” Serenbetz told his colleagues.
BoF member Al Alper initially disagreed, expressing his concern that any cost savings the BoE was able to make this year reflected in a somewhat lower increase, that the number was “artificially deflated” and wouldn’t be able to be continued in future years.
“What you’re now building in is a structural increase of really 3.5 percent that will be compounded year after year, going forward. So that once you remove that positive variance we’ll be adding next year 2 percent to a 3.5 percent structural increase,” he said.
Aside from Alper, the remaining members credited the BoE with addressing budget in a different way than in years past, justifying when increases were motivated by changes under the Common Core, and making cuts that they hope will permanently reduce costs in subsequent years.
But they did say that in the next few years the Bd. of Ed. will have their hands full making sure the numbers can be reigned in as well as they did this year.
“I’m ok with this year’s number. But the one thing I’m unhappy with, and would love to see changed next year, is for four years we’ve given this guidance and only once have they adhered to it, that was the first year. The next few years, we’ve given an average increase of 2.59 percent. Maybe 1.75 percent isn’t realistic, and that is something I’d like us to commit to addressing. I’ve always voted no because we gave 1.75 and told that to the public and it’s been much higher. This time it’s a lot closer,” Lynne Vanderslice said.
Jeffrey Rutishauser said that while the BoE did a good job this year, “The work is cut out for next year and the year after. next year they’re looking at 3.5 going in. This year they did have pretty comfortable this year. But clearly there’s work cut out to get next year’s numbers shaved down. Because there’s a 3.5 percent salary increase built in, and they know that.”
John Kalamarides and Richard Creeth both said they liked the budget as it was submitted. “I didn’t find a lot to say you could toss this out. I’m fine where we are this year,” Creeth said.
There was a slight disagreement toward the end of the discussion between Serenbetz and Alper, when the chair asked Alper what he’d like to change about the budget.
“I’m not saying I don’t like the number, but underneath it is a structural increase of 3.5 percent.”
Serenbetz challenged him by asking, “What would you like to do about that?”
Ultimately, Alper expressed a desire to see the BoE cut an additional $350,000 from the budget they submitted.
Creeth responded that, “That would be tough, given the work they did this year. It’s very appropriate for us to send a message that we’re concerned about next year, but the declining enrollment gives them opportunities. But after all the work they did, to come in and cut $350,000, I couldn’t support that.”
Ultimately, the Finance board approved the BoE’s proposed budget without making further cuts, even though Alper was the lone vote against approving it.
Board of Selectmen
As part of the Selectmen’s operating budget, the Board of Finance unanimously approved a $10,000 increase in their own budget for next year, from $12,000 to $22,000. That amount would cover any additional work the board takes on, including any kind of special studies or audits. This past year they incurred extra costs and had to tap into the charter authority to cover their excess spending, and the members agreed they wanted to prevent the same situation in FY ’15-’16.
That $10,000 is included in the BoS’s budget, an increase of 2.09 percent over last year’s budget.
With very little discussion, indicating that all the finance board members were “comfortable with the numbers,” as Creeth said he was, the BoF approved the selectmen’s operating budget at $31,078,978 and the selectmen’s capital budget of $1,353,217 for total of $32,432,195.
After going through the rest of the town’s finances, the BoF members agreed that the mill rate increase they’d consider would be 1.196 percent and that they would vote to set that figure as final on Wednesday night.