Meeting of the Budget Minds: Bd. of Finance and Selectmen Talk FY’18

Wilton’s Board of Selectmen hosted the Board of Finance last night to discuss the proposed FY18 operating budget for the town. At the start of the budget process months ago, the BoF gave the selectmen guidance and suggested they aim for a minus-1.25 percent change from the FY’17 budget of $32.20 million. Instead, rather than a offering a decrease, the BoS has put together a proposed budget that comes in at $33.23 million, or $1.03 million (3.2-percent) above last the current year’s budget.

First selectman Lynne Vanderslice opened the meeting in a straightforward way.

“We understood your target, we heard your target. It was not something we thought was achievable in the best interests of the town,” she said. “We put together the budget we thought was in the best interests of the town. We just decided, since we really are uncomfortable with cuts, we really wanted to have a joint conversation, get a sense of where you are, rather than doing things we don’t think are a very good idea.”

As usual, the biggest driver behind the increase was changes in employee compensation and benefits. But there were several:

Wages/Salaries

She ran through some specific areas illustrating what the BoS faced in putting together the budget as it stands now.

  • Vanderslice said the BoS is trying to get the Parks and Recreation Department to become self-sustaining and cover all their own costs–she specifically pointed to the program director’s salary, which would have to be covered by an increase in program fees that participants would pay. In addition, the department will once again start charging fees for residents to use Merwin Meadows to help cover part time salary expenses for lifeguards and other wages.
  • There are currently two non-union employee vacancies–the director of Social Services and a part-time social worker. “One of the goals is to look at every vacancy and ask, ‘Do we need it, and not fill it if we don’t need it?’ But those two positions we feel we need. Demand is up over there, so we need those positions, so we’re going to fill those two vacancies,” Vanderslice told the BoF.
  • The town adjusted some benefits offered to new employees. “They’re in a high-deductible, HSA-only option to reduce the defined contribution down to 5-percent and reduced the maximum number of paid sick days.
  • Vanderslice said the current police union contract expires in June 30, 2017, but the current contract includes a general wage increase for FY’18, which is reflected in the proposed budget as well.
  • Because there are several union contracts still in negotiation or arbitration, the budget only includes placeholders for general wage increases for union employees for contracts that are still in negotiation or arbitration.

Benefits

  • For group insurance, rates on the PPO plan increase 5.8-percent and the high-deductible plan increase is 10.2-percent. Vanderslice says those increases are about catching up:  FY’16 rates went down, but in FY’17 there were sizable increases that came in after the budget was done. “What we’re seeing in ’18 we probably should have seen in ’17,” she noted.
  • But claims are also up. “We’ve had a couple of very costly claims that hurt.” Despite being considered a “small group”–153 employees–Vanderslice is trying to bid out more affordable insurance plans. She’s hoping to combine efforts with the Board of Ed and get a much more aggressive about getting better rates.”

Addressing Other Costs/Issues Before Eliminating Jobs

Vanderslice detailed several areas where the town departments planned to make adjustments–eliminating, cutting, or finding alternate ways to fund projects and continue to provide town services. The ultimate goal was to do so, without cutting any employees.

  • Transfer Station:  Vanderslice says the town is aware of needing to address how the transfer station impacts the budget.  “Within the budget we kept the subsidies for the transfer station flat, despite operating at a loss. We’re looking at a short term plan and a long term plan. It’s an enterprise fund that’s supposed to break even, yet it operates at a large loss (approx. $100,o00) and we have to subsidize that. That’s something we’re looking at.”
  • Parks & Recreation:  “We’re going to have to get private sponsors for some of the larger events–Fourth of July runs at a loss, we’ve challenged the Parks & Rec to go out and find that money, get some sponsors. They’ll do summer concerts and look for sponsors for that.”
  • Plan of Conservation and Development:  Vanderslice also explained that she wanted to include $50,000 in the FY’18 budget to begin working on the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) one year earlier than the town is obligated to.

    “We’d like to start this summer if we can. It makes a lot of sense for a couple reasons:  one, there are a lot of developers coming to my door, and we’d like to have that community conversation about what do we want to do. The other thing is we have a moratorium on affordable housing and we were awarded that at the end of 2015. That’s a 4-year moratorium. The concept behind that is we take that four years and address what areas is it appropriate for. We’re a year-plus into that. Part of the POCD you address that also.”

Vanderslice repeatedly stressed that the last thing she’d consider would be eliminating jobs and personnel.

“We are not budgeting, and do not want to budget for furloughs or layoffs. We really do think that the size of the police department, fire department and DPW are the right size. We were just ranked the safest community in CT and there’s a reason for that. People know. People know not to drink and drive in Wilton. Sometimes people say, ‘Why are there so many police officers and firefighters?’ When you have an incident like [the Shadow Lane fire] or the bank robbery, that’s why you want people on staff.”

Vanderslice addressed the question of filling vacancies and staffing at the police department, specifically the second school resource officer, something that is funded completely out of the town budget rather than being shared by the school budget.

“You may have heard me talk about, ‘Do we really need a second school resources officer?’ The Board of Ed wants it, the police commission wants it. If we didn’t fill the vacancy, we’d be kind of dealing with it through overtime and I don’t know that they would do the second SRO.”

Vanderslice said even before a reduction of the 45th police officer, the BoS would look to make reductions in town grants to the non-profit entities–notably including the Wilton Library.

She pointed out that last year the BoS returned about $1 million in budgeted costs, $700,000 of which was payroll related; hopefully, Vanderslice mused, the BoF would take that into account by not holding the town to sharper cuts.

“There was a distinct effort to stretch personnel and delay filling vacancies,” she explained, noting that efforts were made to reassign roles and have other employees assume responsibilities of those who had departed.  “I knew we were going to have a bad year this year, so I tried to bank that money. We brought ’17 in less than ’16, we banked that money and I’m just hoping that you all will recognize that we did that, and give it back.”

Comments and Questions from the BoF

BoF member Peter Balderston, going through his second budget year on the board, complimented Vanderslice on how all-encompassing and practical the budget was.

“I tried to get a sense on a per-capita basis, what the Board of Selectmen encompasses for the town. I actually found it to be rather reasonable–it’s roughly about $1,800 a year or $150 a month. If you think of all the services you get for that, it’s money well spent,” he said.

His colleague John Kalamarides agreed, and asked what kind of reaction Vanderslice had heard from residents about the proposed budget increase and likely fee hikes in Parks & Rec offerings.

“Number one, I’m not sure that the public knows yet about the Merwin Meadows fees. There was a survey done and most people were very happy with the policy that you didn’t have to pay but there were a number of people who said, ‘I would pay for this.’ I haven’t really heard. Other than a couple of people I haven’t really heard from anyone [about the increase]. There just really isn’t a lot of chatter about it.”

Vanderslice did say she imagines that she’ll get some feedback from supporters of the Library, given that she specifically mentioned the library in her comments earlier in the meeting. That prompted Kalamarides to ask about Trackside, and Vanderslice said that the board is actively working on generating more donations, and has a goal of being completely independent within five years.

Asked directly about whether the selectmen would look to the non-profits to make first cuts if the BoF asked for reductions, Vanderslice was blunt:  “Yes.” She looked to her colleagues and got backup from fellow selectman Dick Dubow, who said that even though there has been no formal discussion among the board members, “That’s fairly predictable.”

Vanderslice said her preference would be to try and protect the jobs of all town employees, given that the nonprofit organizations can try and fundraise anything that gets cut from their budgets. “I don’t want to cut an employee. I don’t get to fundraise for employee salaries.”

Kalamarides noted that the nonprofits support many town programs, to which Vanderslice replied, “That’s why I’m hoping you can give my million dollars back, and I won’t have to do that.”

BoF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser asked about Comstock Community Center, and whether revenues from the facility have returned to pre-renovation levels. Vanderslice said that there’s an unusual competition factor that may prevent that from happening.

Continuing Education is increasing significantly and it’s starting to compete with Parks & Rec. It really requires looking at the whole thing to figure out what makes sense. Maybe the old model of Parks & Rec doesn’t work for the future,” she said, pointing to one example of before-and-after-school care programs run by Continuing Ed with a waitlist of 19 families. “Working parents prefer if the program is at the school, the convenience of it being run through the school. Maybe Parks & Rec doing the program, instead it’s being done there [at the school].”

Given the profitability of running programs for children, Continuing Education has expanded their offerings, many of which compete with Parks & Rec programs. “The Y is doing programs, I was at the Library the other day and they were doing Zumba class for kids. That’s something you don’t think you’d see in the Brubeck Room, that’s something you’d think you’d have at Parks & Rec.”

Rutishauser added that in addition to a lot of available space at Comstock, there is also available space at the newly renovated Miller-Driscoll. “If you could fill that up with things that increase revenue, that could offset some of the staffing issues.”

He also noted that even with the challenges of growing budgets year after year driven mostly by wage increases, “There’s not that much to cut back on, you really are at the essential core. But we still have a budget higher than we’d like it to be. So we might have to look at private fundraising for the Library, the Teen Center and other areas.”

Rutishauser added that another unknown is how much revenue would be coming to Wilton from the state, for the town side of the budget, irrespective of the Board of Education side of the budget.

“What we have in there is what’s in the governor’s budget. From everything I’m hearing, I don’t think there’s a huge risk in book those as the revenue number,” Vanderslice answered, but pointed out that the educational money that used to come from the state would no longer be headed Wilton’s way.

 

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