Short on Time, Unclear on Process, and “Out of Order”: Board of Finance Fails to Reach BOE Budget Resolution

The April 5 Board of Finance meeting

Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) met last evening, Tuesday, April 5, with a plan to vote on key resolutions for advancing the FY2023 budgets proposed by the Board of Education (BOE) and the Board of Selectmen (BOS).

Despite BOF Chair Michael Kaelin‘s desire for closure on the budget resolutions, the board struggled to find consensus on whether to proceed and how to do so, and at times descended into chaotic and heated arguments over the best way to achieve budget goals. At least twice, Kaelin charged BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg with being “out of order” for refusing to follow the proper meeting rules — a charge Koenigsberg also returned to Kaelin.

The meeting came just one night after the BOF’s April 4 deliberations on the BOE and BOS budget proposals, when the BOF voted unanimously to accept the BOS budget proposal, but voted 4-2 to reduce the most recent BOE budget proposal by $688,000.

As GOOD Morning Wilton reported, the BOF’s April 4 deliberations revealed disagreement and frustration among members of the BOF, not only in regard to the amount of the BOE budget increase but even with the role and responsibilities of the BOF itself.

The April 5 meeting further amplified fundamental differences between BOF members on how the board should approach the significant BOE budget request and, more specifically, how to fund various capital spending projects.

To Bond or Not To Bond

Questions surrounding the possibility of bonding certain capital expenditures by the BOE have been at the crux of the BOF’s deliberations on the BOE budget.

In response to public comment at the start of the meeting by Wilton resident Steve Hudspeth, Koenigsberg took the opportunity to reiterate, among other things, his belief that some sizable BOE capital expenses (such as elevators and other improvements) could be paid for over the long term through bonding rather than the BOE’s operating budget.

Koenigsberg read the full length of a statement (previously sent to and published by GMW) advocating for the BOE to quickly pursue the possibility of bonding such projects through the BOS.

Following Koenisberg’s comments, Kaelin attempted to steer the discussion back to “process” and the BOF’s immediate tasks at hand, and away from renewed debate on the BOE budget details.

“We have a job to do,” Kaelin said.

But as the board began to work through the multiple resolutions on the agenda, it quickly became mired again in heated debate over the BOE budget.

No BOE Resolution

The resolution that had been prepared for the BOF vote would have appropriated $86,677,862 for the BOE, moving that proposed amount to the Annual Town Meeting to be considered by Wilton residents and property owners.

Citing communication received earlier Tuesday from BOE Chair Deborah Low regarding the urgency of completing a Wilton High School elevator repair at a cost of approximately $200,000 (according to earlier estimates), Kaelin made a motion to amend the resolution, in effect adding it back to the total appropriation amount and shrinking the $688,000 reduction the board had voted on the previous night.

Kaelin emphasized that while he agreed with Keonigsberg conceptually on the need to consider bonding for all capital projects going forward, there simply was not enough time to pursue that avenue to fund the elevator repair scheduled for this summer.

When Keonigsberg pushed back and continued to press for taking additional steps to pursue bonding the elevator repair, Kaelin again tried to pull the reins.

“What you’re talking about is a longer-term solution,” Kaelin said.

“I‘m just facing practical reality,” Kaelin continued. “Everything that the Board of Education chairwoman [Deborah Low] communicated to us this morning is that if we don’t appropriate these additional funds tonight, they’re going to end up having to take it out of their operating budget.”

What could slow the process down would be the question of whether the BOS would accept the BOF’s argument for including the project on the list of bonding projects to present to the town for consideration at the Town Meeting in May — and if the elevator repair did make the BOS list, it would still have to clear the hurdle of being approved in the town vote.

Keonigsberg could not be deterred. He insisted there was still time in the planning process to allow for exploration of the bonding process, with contingencies such as dipping into budget reserves or further BOF action to modify appropriations if funding through bonding did not materialize.

“I really think we’re overthinking this,” Kaelin said with clear frustration. “We don’t have time to get this bonded before [the BOE] needs [funding for] the elevator. Again, we’re overthinking this. This is a $200,000 item on what is now close to an $87 million budget. I don’t understand what the issue is with this one item.”

Pushing back on Kaelin’s motion to add the $200,000 back in, BOF member Matt Raimondi suggested the BOE could “find” the money within the budget number to which the BOF had agreed just the night before.

“We agreed yesterday on a specific [budget] number, and we’re now increasing that number,” Raimondi said. “I’m not saying I disagree with the [need for] the elevator, [but] I would take the position that within $87 million, we can find $200,000 for the elevator. I have a tough time understanding why we need to go back on that decision… I just don’t understand about reopening the discussion.”

Raimondi went further in resisting the $200,000 for the elevator, suggesting it would be difficult to know whether the monies would be spent as intended.

“There’s a saying in private equity that cash is fungible,” Raimondi said. “So how do we know which $200,000 is being spent on this?”

“If you’re going to buy ice cream and you have $10 in your pocket, I give you another $10. How do you know which $10 went to spend on the ice cream?” Raimondi asked metaphorically. “You can’t.”

In another example of tensions between board members, Sandy Arkell called out Raimondi’s ice cream metaphor as “appalling” for what she called “lack of trust” for a fellow Wilton board. That angered Raimondi, who shot back to defend his comments and the need for the board to “exercise fiduciary responsibility.”

The meeting continued on through several more minutes of uncomfortable back-and-forth between Kaelin and Koenigsberg.

Kaelin ultimately made a motion to postpone making any resolution on the BOE budget until after the next BOS meeting, which is scheduled for tonight, April 6. The BOS was already planning to discuss FY2023 bonding referendum requests at the meeting. Kaelin encouraged BOF members to submit questions about the bonding process that could impact the BOE budget.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks To the fiscally responsible BOF members. Do it right, cash is fungible…bond capital items.

  2. There is something suspicious about that number for the elevator. The price of a residential elevator is around 30k, and a freight elevator (what you likely have at the school) goes for 60-80k. So the contractor needs 100k to install an 80k elevator? That doesn’t seem right unless you are also replacing the entire elevator shaft?? So, I’m happy to see the BOF looking closely at these numbers, even if things get heated.

    Also, I like the ice cream metaphor. Thank you for exercising fiduciary responsibility.

  3. Why isn’t a finance person the chairman? We also went through a senior level BOE finance manager referring to reconciliations in 2017 as “voodoo economics”. It’s sounding similar now. Bonding is the way for capital expenditures.

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