Wilton’s Board of Finance met Tuesday evening, Feb. 8, as the Town’s FY2023 budget planning process is now in full swing.
The meeting came on the heels of Monday night’s (Feb. 7) Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting, when First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice presented her initial BOS budget proposal, and just days after Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Smith outlined his budget request to the Board of Education (BOE).
Combined, the BOS and BOE budget proposals call for millions of dollars in increases, but the BOF’s attention at Tuesday night’s meeting was primarily on the BOE budget, in preparation for a joint meeting Thursday, Feb. 10.
The BOF meeting agenda called for discussion of the BOE budget, but the discussion had little to do with line items and much more to do with strategic questions.
BOF Vice Chair Stewart Keonigsberg opened the discussion with a general concern about the potential mill rate implications, especially given what he expects to be further budget increases in the following year due to inflationary pressure.
“How much of an increase in the mill rate should we be thinking about?” Keonisgberg asked rhetorically. “I do believe from a trend perspective, we’re going to be seeing higher numbers in the future. I don’t think there’s any stopping that.”
BOF member Chris Stroup cautioned the board about not setting budget expectations a priori.
“I [am in favor of] not providing guidance, which effectively is a top-down determination of what ought to be spent based on a presumption about what the taxpayer can bear,” Stroup said. “I’d like to hear the Board of Ed and the Board of Selectmen describe why they propose to spend the money they do, and then consider that in the context of historical spending, as well as the trade-offs.”
At the same time, Stroup hinted the proposed budgets might be acceptable.
“I actually think this town could support the spending that’s been proposed,” Stroup said. “Our overall spending has been muted the last several years. Over a multi-year period of time, the aggregate increase in tax burden has been modest.”
In terms of the BOE budget, BOF Chair Mike Kaelin is seeking a better understanding of the tradeoffs of bringing the numbers down.
“[I have] two questions for the Board of Ed to answer for us on Thursday night,” Kaelin revealed. “The first question is, if we had to limit the increase in the operating budget to 2%, how would you get there? And then the second question [is] the same question: if we just had to limit it to zero, a flat budget. I think we need to know what we’re going to lose before we can make a decision on how high it can go.”
BOF member Sandy Arkell concurred, adding, “What would be the opportunity cost? What are they going to have to cut, and can we live with that?”
Arkell went on to say she wasn’t sure what types of cuts could be achieved, but was “optimistic” after a BOE sub-committee meeting that the BOE might yet find ways to do so. She further noted:
“[The BOE has] deferred expenses now for a number of years. We’ve benefited from moderate increases in the past because of that. And now they’re kind of coming back to the table.”
BOE Budget Increase: 2.99% or 3.71%?
As presented by Smith, the proposed BOE budget is for $87.3 million, which represents an increase of roughly $2.5 million, or 2.99% over the current year’s spending.
Some BOF members are taking issue with the portrayal of the budget as a 2.99% increase, because the numbers do not include $610,000 in proposed capital spending improvement projects.
Including the capital spending, which is historically in the BOE budget, the actual increase is 3.71% over the current year’s budget.
It should also be noted, even without capital spending, that the 2.99% increase would be the largest increase in the last seven years.
BOF member Matt Raimondi was the first to raise the issue.
“What we need to get into now is just to qualify some of the numbers,” Raimondi said. “The way I’m looking at it, it’s a 3.7% increase to the Board of Education.”
Koenigsberg echoed the point.
“The Board of Ed should be quoting the overall increase, and that is the 3.7%,” Koenigsberg stated. “So the fact that there’s even some discussion or comparison of the 2.99% to other towns is not consistent with my understanding of how this is supposed to work.” (Editor’s Note: Keonigsberg is referring to a proposed change in the handling of BOE capital expenditures under the BOS budget, a move which would enable BOE spending projects to be extended beyond the fiscal year in which they are approved. Currently, budgeted money is returned to the town’s general fund at the end of a fiscal year if a project is interrupted or delayed.)
Koenigsberg said he believed the change was intended to provide “more of a protective mechanism for long term planning” and should not be used to suggest a reduction in the BOE budget that would be assumed by the BOS.
After expressing some concern about the numbers feeling “heavy” at this early juncture, Raimondo also emphasized that the final budget will come down to value choices.
“We need to take care of our children and take care of our community, and that’s the most important thing,” Raimondi said. “Our budget should reflect our values… I just want to make sure I personally have a full understanding of exactly what the values are that [the BOE is] putting here.”
BOF member Rich Santosky was the first to raise the idea of soliciting more residents’ input, making an appeal directly to members of the public to provide their opinions during the budget process.
“One thing I would point out, for the few people that may be listening to this, if they have any comments, they should feel free to email the board and give us their feedback,” Santosky said. “There probably is not much of an appetite to see taxes go up, but maybe we’re wrong, and to the degree that people want to voice their opinions, I think they should let us know.”
Kaelin agreed, and further suggested public input would be desirable early in the process, even before the public hearings scheduled for March 23-24.
“In terms of making the ultimate decision on what we’re going to recommend to the Town Meeting, not only do we have to get input from the boards and understand the justification for their proposed budgets, but we do have to get input from the public,” Kaelin said. “And that is the reason for the public hearings. But, to Rich’s point, I think we have to do a little more outreach and encouragement to get the public to send us feedback.”
“We do need to find out, in whatever way we can, what appetite the town has for any of this,” Kaelin added.
Kaelin said he welcomes more attendance at public meetings but wants to make it even easier for people.
“If you can’t be there in person, send us an email!” he exhorted.