Two men who have been involved in Wilton government for a long time have each sent in a letter stating their opinions about further budget cuts. The first, former first selectman Paul Hannah, says the Charter limits what can be done at Tuesday’s Annual Town Meeting—but that the town’s finances can withstand letting the budget stay as it currently has been recommended by the Board of Finance. The second letter writer is Paul Burnham, an attorney who served on the Board of Finance with Hannah as well as the Charter Revision Commission during the most recent Charter revision; he writes that the Charter limits what kind of actions the Town Meeting can take—in particular the Town Meeting cannot reduce the amount set forth in the budget for the schools, and thereby cause the amount of contingency funds to increase, nor can the Board of Finance do this if the budget, whether or not amended on Tuesday night, is passed.
The Wilton Sky is NOT Falling⎯Endorse the Budget WITHOUT More Cuts
To the Editor:
Some have suggested that the Tuesday, May 3 Town Meeting should reduce the Board of Education’s budget to offset the possible loss of some or all of Wilton’s Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) grant. This action, however, is not an antidote for the potential problem.
Let me explain:
- The actions the Town Meeting may take Tuesday are carefully described and heavily limited by the Wilton Town Charter.
- The Annual Town Meeting may reduce the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen’s budgets, and consequently the mil rate.
- The Town Meeting may not appropriate the savings to a “contingency fund for irrational and unexpected State legislative actions,” even if it is titled differently.
- The Town Meeting may not reduce the Board of Finance revenue estimate or the Board of Finance recommended fund balance drawdown. These would serve to offset an ECS reduction, but the Charter says NO to either action.
So, the concept of cutting the Board of Education or Board of Selectmen’s budget to offset the possible loss of ECS funding does not hold water.
Does this mean, then, that the Sky is Falling because the Charter limits what the Annual Town Meeting might do Tuesday night? I think NOT, for the following reasons:
- The state legislature is still struggling with many budget issues. Most bets are that a budget will not be completed much before the mandated deadline of midnight Wednesday, May 4. Indeed, it might not be done by then. No one now knows what the final document will say.
- The Wilton Board of Finance has already anticipated reduced state aid: 1) it has dropped from the budget any revenue from sales tax sharing, even though this is still under discussion in Hartford; and 2) it has already reduced the Town’s ECS expectation by $250,000.
- The Town budget is loaded with contingency: $14.1 million in budgeted fund balance and $1.2 million in budgeted charter authority.
- Thus, the $15.3 million of contingency built into the budget will more than cover even the worst case ($1.2 million) ECS reduction. Indeed, cancellation of state grants after the Town budget is adopted is a prime reason for budgeting contingencies.
- The worst case ECS budget news can be absorbed in Wilton WITHOUT AFFECTING the Town’s vaunted Aaa bond rating.
I know that this is not an easy year for those leading Town government. It is also anxiety producing for those of us who follow developments closely.
In my view, the Boards of Selectmen and Education have prepared reasonable budgets. The Board of Finance has pared those budgets down in responsible fashion. It has produced revenue and fund balance numbers which are conservative even should the worst case ECS be enacted in Hartford. The Wilton sky is definitely NOT falling, even in the unlikely event Malloy’s ECS slashing is voted in Hartford.
At the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, let us come together. Let us endorse the Board of Finance recommended budget and mil rate and forward it to the citizenry for the referendum vote.
Charter Says Town Meeting Cannot Change Mil Rate
To the Editor:
My one-time colleague on Wilton’s Board of Finance, Paul Hannah, sent me an advance copy of his letter [above], requesting that I confirm his statements regarding the terms of our Town Charter. (I served on the last Charter Revision Commission and was one of the principal authors of the sections of the Charter which pertain to the annual budget process.) Paul’s statements regarding the powers of the Board of Finance and the Town Meeting are completely accurate.
A majority of the members of the Charter Revision Commission felt strongly that the Town Meeting should NOT have the power, under ANY circumstances, to raise the mil rate above that which the Board of Finance recommended. No member of the Charter Revision Commission articulated a view that the Town Meeting should play any direct role in setting the mil rate. In particular, none articulated a view that the Town Meeting should have the power to reduce the Board of Finance’s determination as to the desired ending fund balance. (Mathematically, a reduction in estimated non-tax revenue must cause either an increase in the proposed mil rate or a reduction in the desired ending fund balance.) Accordingly, the Charter, as adopted, limits the power of the voters present at the Annual Town Meeting to that of considering and perhaps adopting resolutions to reduce certain expenditure line items. See Section 30.E(1) of the Charter.
No member of the Charter Revision Commission articulated a view that the Board of Finance might retain, following the Town Meeting and the approval of the budget (with or without amendment), the power to re-visit any issues regarding the mil rate other than any effect thereon due to the actions of the Town Meeting. Instead, there was unanimity that in such circumstances the mil rate set forth in the legal notice of the Town Meeting should hold, should there be no amendment to the budget adopted at the Town Meeting, and that a new, lower mil rate would be set by the Board of Finance, based upon the same assumptions as set forth in the legal notice, should the Town Meeting approve any reductions to the budget. I doubt that the Section C-30.F of the Charter could be any more explicit on this point.
As a result, if Wilton’s voters pass the budget this week, any amendment which may be adopted at the Annual Town Meeting to reduce any portion of the budget will result in a corresponding reduction in the mil rate. Any reduction in the mil rate will, of course, reduce revenue. But such an amendment could not possibly provide additional revenue so as to increase the ending fund balance.
As Paul Hannah notes, however, this does not put the Town of Wilton in dire straits. Checks will still clear, the Triple A bond rating will remain intact, and the Town will continue to be well protected from any imaginable financial catastrophe possibly occurring during the coming fiscal year.