This year’s Annual Town Meeting is next Tuesday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Clune Auditorium. It is during this meeting that Wilton residents will discuss and vote on adopting the budget for FY’19, as presented by the Board of Finance. There are some changes to voting procedure being implemented this year to make sure vote counts are ironclad, especially as a battle over the BOE budget is expected.
The Annual Town Meeting is the clearest opportunity for Wilton residents to set the course for the town–their input and votes directly impact how the town spends residents’ tax dollars. It’s also basically the way residents’ taxes get set. Hopefully, turnout will be higher than in past years knowing what’s at stake.
Last year two motions were made from the floor by residents to make cuts to the Board of Education budget–by $1 million and by $1.04 million. Those motions were narrowly defeated according to a hand count, which some residents disputed as inaccurate. Again this year, it’s widely expected that similar motions from the floor will be made to cut the school budget, which means there may be another battle at the meeting. Officials have outlined stricter voting procedures should this happen. We detail those below.
Here’s who is eligible to vote:
- All registered Wilton voters are eligible to vote on the budget and any additional referendum questions.
- All resident or nonresident owners of real property—or a motor vehicle—valued at $1,000 or more on Wilton’s last completed Grand List.
- In all cases, voters must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old.
If you are eligible to vote, than by all means, you should show up at one of the two possible times you can vote. And if you can’t make it, at least vote by absentee ballot. It’s your town, your taxes, your property values, your schools, your roads, … you get the point.
WHAT ARE WE VOTING ON?
The Annual Town Meeting will likely be moderated by Scott Lawrence, who moderated last year’s meeting. Lawrence is an attorney and chair of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission. The meeting will follow Robert’s Rules of Order. (Specific rules that will be followed have been outlined by town counsel and a copy of the presentation that will be given at the meeting is available on the town website.)
Jeffrey Rutishauser, the chair of the Board of Finance, will present an overview of the town’s current finances; he will then explain the mil rate the BoF has set and the proposed FY’19 tax rate increase–this year, a 1.51% increase. The total town budget being presented for Fiscal Year 2019 is $127,563,331. (For a detailed look at how the budget was set, read our prior coverage.) That breaks down as follows:
- Board of Selectmen Operating budget: $32,319,728
- Board of Selectmen Capital: $1,182,271
- TOTAL Board of Selectmen: $33,510,999 (0.88% increase over FY’18)
- Board of Education budget: $81,876,563 (1.62% increase over FY’18)
- Debt Service: $10,921,766
- Charter Authority: $1,263,003
First selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice will review the Board of Selectmen budget, and Christine Finkelstein, chair of the Board of Education, will cover the school budget.
The presentations will be followed by public comment. Speakers will be limited to three minutes. There will inevitably be discussion, disagreement and efforts to reduce the budget further at the meeting, as some residents feel strongly that the budget as proposed would mean too big of a tax increase. There will also be calls to protect the budget as it has been proposed by town officials.
Town officials have heard that some residents are planning on making a motion (perhaps more than one) from the floor to amend the proposed budget, specifically to cut the school budget. According to the Town Charter, the only motion to change the budget can be one that reduces it, not one that increases it. If someone wants to change the education budget, he or she can only make a motion to reduce the total BoE budget; if someone wants to amend the town’s budget, he or she can make motions to reduce specific line items of the BoS budget.
Any motion can be discussed and needs to be approved by a majority of residents present at the meeting. If residents want their voices heard and want to either make a motion to reduce a part of the budget or protect the budget as it stands right now, the best and most important thing to do is to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Because last year’s hand count of votes on the from-the-floor motions was criticized, town officials have changed the procedures to tighten up the process. Voters will be completely segregated from guests–they’ll enter through different doors and sit in separate areas of the auditorium. Voters will be given a colored card to display when votes are taken, and only voters in the designated sections will be counted.
The Town Meeting–all of the assembled, eligible voters–must eventually decide by a majority to approve a budget for the voters to consider on the ballot. That could take a while, and whether it’s the budget as proposed by the Board of Finance or not, there will be a budget for voters to consider at the end of the evening.
The main budget question on the ballot will read as follows, and voters will have only three options from which to choose:
Shall the budget and tax rate for the Fiscal Year 2019, as recommended by the Board of Finance, or as amended by the Town Meeting, be:
- REJECTED BECAUSE IT IS TOO HIGH
- REJECTED BECAUSE IT IS TOO LOW
But wait, there still more to talk about before the meeting ends and ballot voting begins. At this point, conversation turns to the proposed bonded capital projects–the larger projects Wilton would need to borrow money for to be able to do. There are three proposed projects this year, and Vanderslice will run through each of those. Each of these projects will be a separate question on the ballot, for voters to either approve (vote yes) or not (vote no).
- Year two of a five-year road restoration project (road paving): $3,000,000
- Replacing the 10-plus year old crumb rubber turf at Lilly Stadium with a new coconut husk turf (plus shock padding): $700,000
- Repaving and installing lighting at the Bus Barn: $400,000
There are no other questions on the ballot.
SO WHEN DO WE VOTE?
- Following the close of the meeting on Tuesday, May 1, eligible voters can begin voting that evening on whether or not they approve the budget as adopted. Polls won’t close until all eligible voters who are present and wish to vote cast their ballots.
- Adjourned voting will also take place on Saturday, May 5. Polls will open at 8 a.m., and stay open until 6 p.m.. It only takes 10 minutes at most to vote, so if you plan to be out and about on a busy Saturday–on the sports sidelines, running errands, entertaining visiting guests, whatever the reason–you now have an extra hour to make sure getting to the polls and voting fits into your day.
- If you can’t make either of those times, you can still vote by absentee ballot–see below for details.
WHERE DO WE VOTE?
Tuesday’s meeting and vote, as well as Saturday’s adjourned vote, all take place at the Clune Center, at Wilton High School, 395 Danbury Rd..
Absentee ballots will be available in the town clerk’s office, 238 Danbury Rd., between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from Wednesday, May 2 through Friday, May 4. Completed absentee ballots must be returned to the town clerk’s office no later than 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 5.
WHY IS IT CRUCIAL TO VOTE AT ALL?
If fewer than 15% of eligible voters turn out to vote, the budget will automatically pass—no matter the outcome of the actual vote. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to stay away from the polls because “not voting is like saying you think the budget should pass.” It’s never a guarantee.
Look at what happened in 2015, when the majority of those who voted cast a “No, Too High” vote, but the budget passed as originally proposed because only 11.5% of eligible voters actually voted. In 2016 there was an 18% voter turnout, but a lot of that was likely driven by a bonding question about a turf field–and a big push from sports booster groups to get voters in support to the polls. In 2017, the motion from the floor vote was very close, and every vote mattered.
If the budget is rejected as either too high or too low, the budget then returns to the Board of Finance which will consult with the members of the BoS and BoE and come back to the Town Meeting with a revised budget. The only options then will be ‘approve’ or ‘reduce’; it cannot be rejected outright.