In an unprecedented special meeting, the top leadership of four Wilton governing boards —the Board of Selectmen (BOS), Board of Finance (BOF), Board of Education (BOE), and Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) — met last night, Wednesday, Dec. 8, to kick off budget planning for FY2023.
While the boards of selectmen, finance and education have had tri-board meetings in the past, this was the first time P&Z was added.
The meeting was intended to be an open dialogue among the various board members, to hear from one another as the Town begins the critical work of budget planning.
Despite budget savings, positive economic developments and other good news impacting Wilton’s finances, other budget factors could push the mill rate into the untenable zone. One preliminary projection puts it at a 4.19% increase.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice set the tone with her opening remarks about the context for the meeting, referring to the 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development as a unifying force for Town leaders across boards.
“There were stakeholders from every elected and appointed board that were part of [the 2019 POCD] process. And we really saw through that process the benefit of bringing stakeholders together.”
Vanderslice continued, “[The POCD] is a document that represents the vision for the town for the next 10 years. Within the document are goals and objectives for every board and commission as to how we’re going to get to that shared vision in 2029 … and so the purpose of these meetings together is so we can all be collaborating and working towards the same goals.”
Vanderslice shared a presentation that included a review of Wilton’s population and income figures, some grant funding information, and other data relevant to the budget process.
The presentation document can be found on the Town website. Among the key points Vanderslice highlighted:
- The U.S. Census revealed Wilton’s population grew by 2.4% between 2010 and 2020, driven by an increase of 1,060 residents in the adult population and despite a decline of 619 residents in the youth population. That decline is consistent with a broader trend of declining birth rates in the U.S. since 2007 and is reflected in the decline in Wilton school enrollment.
- Contrary to some public perception that proposed new apartment buildings in Wilton will create a burden on the schools, the data show the number of school-aged children per unit will be proportionally lower than single-family homes. This is based on data available from existing complexes including Avalon Wilton at 25 River Rd., White Oaks at Wilton at 116 Danbury Rd. (formerly an Avalon property), and the apartments at 31 Old Danbury Rd.
- Based on the income of Wilton’s tax-paying households, Wilton does not have the affluence of surrounding towns like Westport, New Canaan and Darien. Vanderslice included the income data as a reminder that Wilton simply cannot afford some of the amenities seen in those other owns, whether funded by the Town’s taxpayers or through private donations.
- As Vanderslice also discussed at length at the Dec. 6 BOS meeting, federal and state grant money is providing a windfall of funding for important projects slated for the next few years. The required upgrade of the Town’s emergency communication system, for example, expected to cost in the $3-$4 million range, is expected to be covered by the American Rescue Plan Act funds and potentially a federal budget appropriations earmark. This project has now been removed from the list of bonded capital spending projects that was presented to the Town last May.
- Other available funding for needed infrastructure initiatives will come from roughly $1 million in savings from the BOS budget (and potentially more pending final auditing) that is now set aside as an Infrastructure Fund.
Early Mill Rate Discussion
Vanderslice then presented a very preliminary outlook on the mill rate, based on a number of assumptions about potential increases in BOS and BOE budgets on the expense side, and other factors on the revenue side.
One critical factor for FY2023 on the revenue side pertains to the excess General Fund balance.
Vanderslice explained to the assembled board members why that balance — which comes from either budget savings or higher-than-expected revenues — can have a significant impact on the mill rate.
“When I say General Fund, I’m referring to all the activity that is budgeted: all of the expenses [and] the revenue run through the General Fund. We budget every year for our expenses, our revenues, and also to maintain 10% unrestricted funds within the General Fund. So if we beat our budget, the unreserved amount will exceed the 10% and the Board of Finance will make the decision whether or not to draw it down, and how much to draw it down … and then the balance that’s needed will be the property taxes.”
She noted that in 2020 the Town made the decision to increase the Town’s reserves given all of the uncertainty at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since then, budgets have been lean.
“We had tight budgets in [FY2022]. The Board of Ed increases have been small. The Board of Selectmen [FY2022] budget is lower than our [FY2020] budget,” Vanderslice said. “So when we look at how much excess do we think will be in there, that can be drawn down for [FY2023], we think there’s going to be less money.”
Vanderslice reiterated a simple reality.
“To have three million [dollars] less in fund balance means we need a sizable increase in property taxes, if we’re going to be able to fund the expenses at the level that they’re forecasted right now.”
Vanderslice also recognized that residents have little appetite for tax increases.
“Obviously 4.19% is a huge [increase],” she acknowledged. “It’s significantly larger than what we’ve been running at. We had a 3.77% decrease in fiscal year 2021, and we had a less than a 1.5% increase last year.”
Response From Board Members
BOE chair Debbie Low said she was “in wait-and-see” mode with “major unknowns” going into the budget process.
“We are very early in our budget process. The Board is reviewing the budget priorities for next year,” Low said. “I just want everyone to be aware, it’s important to remember that we are still dealing with the impact of COVID. We have learning gaps that we are trying to work our way through, and we also have some social-emotional needs that are affecting not only Wilton but students across the state and across the nation. There’ll be some programmatic needs. And of course that comes with funding needs, some of which might be addressed through some grants, either at the state or the federal level, but to what extent we’re not quite sure yet.”
Another variable will be enrollment numbers, which Low described as “somewhat unstable” as a result of the pandemic and the increasing number of new families in town. Low said the BOE is anticipating updated enrollment projections next week.
Low added a historical perspective.
“If we look back over the last decade or so, Superintendent [Kevin] Smith has done a great job with bringing in as reasonable a budget as possible, while still meeting the most important programmatic and district needs.”
P&Z vice chair Melissa-Jean Rotini spoke in place of chair Rick Tomasetti, who was unable to attend the meeting.
“We really do need to move forward on this master planning,” she began, adding that the master planning process will require some budget support.
She also highlighted P&Z’s desire to revamp regulations and provide updated guidelines to applicants, along with improving the “gateways” to town and other areas outside of Wilton Center like Cannondale and Georgetown.
“We need to do what we need to make the town continue to be a great place to be, which will drive everything. I think that everything fits together. So it’s a great thing that we’re all being brought together,” Rotini said.
Michael Kaelin, the BOF’s vice chair, felt it might be premature for him to speak on behalf of his fellow board members, because the BOF has not met since the new board members were sworn in and former chair Jeffrey Rutishauser‘s term ended.
“I can’t speak on behalf of the board tonight. We’re meeting next week to get organized, to talk about what we have to do, and how we’re going to do it,” Kaelin said.
Still, Kaelin did say the quad-board meeting signaled some tough budget decisions ahead.
“It’s really valuable to have this meeting tonight, because not only are we fully intending to work with each and all of you, but as Lynne has mentioned, and I’ll just underline it, we have a lot of work to do. I think each one of us, especially those of you who just ran in the municipal election, know that a 4% tax increase is a really, really tough sell for the residents of this town.”