Following the publication of an OP-ED by Board of Finance member Peter Balderston, Wilton resident Peter Squitieri sent a letter applauding the moves made by the BOF with regard to the FY2020 budget that asked, “Why isn’t anyone celebrating the tax cut?” Now, Squitieri reconsiders, with another letter assessing the reduction the BOF made to the Board of Education’s proposed school budget. He writes, “It’s hard to see any good reason why the BOE proposal should have been cut.”

To the Editor:

The ominous ‘perfect storm…’ [that BOF member Peter Balderston wrote about] turned out to be just a drizzle. But it did cause damage. More of that later, let’s first consider the issues raised.

None of the consolidation or regionalization bills have survived for this year. I doubt they’ll come up in the next session because the leadership has squandered a vast amount of political capital and goodwill on these measures, which infuriate voters, and have little if any benefit.

SB431 has almost no chance of passing this year, although provisions will probably be revived in the future. If it is revived, I think the consequences are much less scary than has been portrayed. But for now it’s a monster under the bed.

Of all the bills, the one that might get through is the pension push-down. If this happens Wilton will be paying out $436,000 in the first year[1], corresponding to a 0.1 mil tax increase, which is about $71 on a $1,000,000 house. By the third year it would be $1,369,000, a 0.31 mil increase, about $217 on the same house.

With these concerns allayed, what would be the rationale for reigning in the budget? Are BOE expenditures outrunning inflation? Let’s look at the five years ending June 30, 2018 and the five years ending June 30, 2020 (which uses some estimates) assuming the proposed budget was adopted. Using CPI-U which is the normal measure of inflation:

 

  CPI-U BOE Expenditures
Increase 7/1/13 – 7/1/18 (actual) 8.03% 7.30%
Increase 7/1/15 –  7/1/20  (assume 2.0% inflation 2019 & 2020,  BOE budget as proposed 2019-2020)[2] 9.96% 5.60%
Increase 7/1/15 – 7/1/20 per pupil expenditure 8.92%

Thus the BOE increases, even in the original proposal, are below or substantially below inflation. Even the dread per-pupil expenditure isn’t keeping up with inflation.

But taxes aren’t paid out of property; they’re paid out of income.  So it seems to me the most useful measure is the tax burden on town income, which is population x per capita income. Per capita income figures aren’t available after 2017, but using the latest available:

Fiscal Year BOE Expenditures as a % of town income
2014-2015 5.328%
2015-2016 5.468%
2016-2017 5.244%
2017-2018 5.261%

The portion of town income used by the Board of Ed has remained almost rock-steady for several years.

Teacher’s salaries are high compared to the rest of the state, and for a good reason. Wilton has the most well-educated and experienced teachers. But at each level of the teachers’ educational attainment, Wilton teachers are 5th or 6th on the scale for the surrounding towns. This can be seen on page 44 of the Superintendent’s Proposed Budget Presentation.

As reported in the Superintendent’s proposed budget, per pupil expenditure in Wilton is 6th out of the eight towns in DRG A, whereas it’s 3rd in median household income, and 5th in per capita income. This looks like a Board firmly in control of its costs.

The graph of Student-to-Staff Ratio seems very concerning, but in fact is considerably distorted by presenting the data in a truncated graph.[3]   This same graph shown in its ‘normal’ version, below, looks quite a bit different. The difference between 15-16 and 18-19 is only 0.7%, and is closer to the historical average than the outliers of 2010-2014.

In summary:

  • None of the provisions that have caused such consternation, except one, have a chance of being passed this year. That one has a nominal effect on the tax burden, and has been reserved for in this year anyway.
  • BOE expenditures, both in total and per pupil, have been growing at a rate slower than inflation for several years
  • The tax/income burden of the BOE budget has been almost rock-steady for several years
  • The growth in the BOE budget has been less than any DRG A town except Easton.
  • Teacher’s salaries for the same educational attainment are below the median for the surrounding towns.
  • The Board of Education budget came in below the guidelines that the Board of Finance itself promulgated last fall
  • The budget has gone through multiple stages of review, first by each of the Town government’s boards, then in two public meetings, with little or no objection.

Given all the above, it’s hard to see any good reason why the BOE proposal should have been cut. But this ‘perfect drizzle’ was used as the rationale for doing exactly that. And the cuts were made knowing they couldn’t be reinstated at the Town Meeting, because there the budget can only be cut, not increased. Just four members of the Board of Finance, ignoring the will of the voters, ambushed the rest of the town government and the team of professionals that had spent months crafting a cost-conscious and sensible budget.

I urge everyone to attend the Annual Town Meeting May 7 to ensure that no more cuts are made.

Peter Squitieri

 

[1] Wilton Bulletin “Update on Pension Pushdown:  How Much $$ Gov. Lamont Wants from Wilton,”  Feb. 22, 2019
[2] The Philadelphia Fed predicts Headline CPI of 2.0% in 2019 and 2.2% in 2020
[3] Wikipedia ‘Misleading Graph’