The public hearing on the FY2022 Board of Selectmen (BOS) budget took place last evening (Tuesday, March 30). The proposed BOS budget is just under $33.5 million, an increase of 1.73%, over the previous year.
The hearing followed Monday night’s public hearing on the Board of Education (BOE) budget, which, at the proposed $84.8 million, represents about two-thirds of the overall town budget.
Wilton residents were not particularly vocal at either public hearing. Only four residents expressed views on the BOE budget, and no one commented on the BOS budget, either during the meeting or in advance by email.
Led by the Board of Finance (BOF), these two public hearings are an important step in the annual budget process, an opportunity for residents to learn how town leaders propose to spend their tax dollars, and for residents to freely comment on those proposals, before the budget vote at the Annual Town Meeting.
Much as he did in Monday’s BOE budget hearing, BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser began the BOS budget hearing with a presentation that included the highlights of the FY2022 town budget, some historical perspective, and an explanation of the role of the BOF – and how all of that leads to a mill rate determination for taxpayers.
The 1.73% increase in the BOS budget, and the even larger 2.99% BOE increase, are offset to some degree by other budget factors, including favorable increases in the Grand List (1.34%) and non-tax revenues (over $1 million).
Those factors, along with a slight increase in debt service and maintaining tax relief for the elderly and disabled, would require a mill rate of 28.1013, an increase of 2.33% versus FY2021.
Rather than focusing primarily on comparisons to the previous FY2021 year, which was so atypical due the COVID-19 pandemic, Rutishauser pointed to FY2020 for “an even better comparison” of the overall budget.
Taking that longer view, and noting that the proposed BOS budget is lower than FY2020, the mill rate of 28.1013 actually represents a decrease of 1.5% from FY2020.
The mill rate discussed at the March 29-30 hearings is not yet final. Rutishauser explained what factors the BOF will consider in its upcoming mill rate deliberations:
- The views of Wilton citizens expressed through direct communication (email the BOF)
- The financial resources of the town
- Whether the BOE and the BOS can find additional savings in their respective budget requests
- The appropriateness of revenue, debt service and General Fund balance amounts
Ultimately, the BOF will put forth a FY2022 budget and corresponding mill rate at the Annual Town Meeting, where it becomes subject to a town vote.
Vanderslice Explains the BOS Budget
Following Rutishauser’s comments on the overall town budget, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice also gave a presentation with an overview of the BOS budget proposal.
“I am presenting this budget on behalf of the Board of Selectmen, who are here tonight-Second Selectwoman Lori Bufano, Josh Cole, Deb McFadden and Ross Tartell,” she began.
Vanderslice also gave a nod to the various town department heads, acknowledging their role in developing the budget, which she says, “reflects their ongoing willingness to challenge themselves on how can we do better and at a lower cost”.
The total budget of nearly $33.5 million represents a 1.73% increase over FY2021, but a nearly 1% decrease versus the previous FY2020 budget (with a two-year average also being a decrease.)
She outlined three goals behind the budget:
- “Continued efforts to provide the quality services Wilton residents and businesses expect at the lowest possible cost”
- “Continued efforts to ensure the health and safety of the community throughout the pandemic and pandemic recovery”
- “Increased investment in the future“
On the latter point, Vanderslice said that investment “continues our efforts to modernize government through increased use of technology, it supports the work we are doing to investigate improvements in broadband and cell service (efforts we hope will be funded through American Rescue funds), and investments in infrastructure and master planning for Wilton Center and the surrounding Route 7.”
Labor costs (wages, medical and other benefits) represent 65% of the BOS budget, but Vanderslice is proud of the way those costs have been managed. “Total labor costs are only up by $18,000. That is quite extraordinary and we thank our employees for help making that possible,” she said.
In addition to the savings from moving employees to a state medical insurance plan, Vanderslice highlighted other measures that have proven effective in reducing costs, including eliminating two full-time positions (one due to retirement, and another due to combining two positions into one), rebidding business insurance, and other measures.
Despite those measures, there is still a net increase in the proposed budget. Vanderslice explained the “drivers” behind that increase:
- Nearly $400,000 in “restored expenses” that were temporarily eliminated or deferred in FY2021 due to the pandemic (such as the Merwin Meadows swim program, Senior Center programs, etc.) and another $103,000 in pandemic-related “spillover” costs
- $396,000 in wage increases (Vanderslice explained that general wage rate increases range from 2-2.25%, but newer employees also receive “step increases” until they reach a certain level. With a high number of retirements and newer employees in recent years, more employees are receiving the step increase.)
- Just over $200,000 in “new initiatives”, with the majority being earmarked for the town’s Master Planning for Wilton Center and Route 7 areas, something that had not been included in previous budgets. Vanderslice said that planning “will help to ensure a vibrant [town] center and community”.
Vanderslice has frequently voiced her support for improved 5G and broadband capabilities, also prioritized by Gov. Ned Lamont. Those initiatives, which were included in earlier drafts of the FY2022 budget, likely will now be funded by the federal relief dollars Wilton is receiving from the American Rescue Plan, but details are still emerging.
Although it is only preliminary, Vanderslice also shared a draft five-year bonded capital expenditure plan, with projects such as road restoration, bridge replacement, fire department equipment, and Middlebrook tennis courts. The plan will be further discussed at the next Board of Selectmen meeting.
She also noted that a second Town Meeting is likely to be called later this year, when details for the police headquarters project (and possibly the town emergency radio system upgrade) would be ready to present to the town.
In closing, Vanderslice said, “In summary, I would say we are proposing a very cost-conscious budget, which meets the needs of the community not only now, but also looks towards the future.”
Although she invited comments and questions from the audience, no one raised a hand to speak. No emails were received, either.
It is not too late for residents to comment on the BOE or BOS budgets.
Comments may be made and emailed to the BOF in advance. Be sure to include a name and Wilton address.
On April 6-7, the BOF will hold Budget and Mill Rate Deliberation meetings.
All meetings are open to the public and are held on Zoom. Links to meetings are found on the meeting agenda page on the town of Wilton website.