The Board of Finance (BOF) and Board of Education (BOE) met in separate meetings Tuesday evening (March 9), as both boards are now deeply in the throes of Wilton’s budget planning process.

Sticker Shock–First Pass is High

On Feb. 25, Superintendent Kevin Smith presented his 2021-2022 budget proposal to the BOE. That initial budget request was roughly $85,570,000, an increase of 3.92% (approximately $3.25 million) over the previous year’s budget.

Since then, the BOE and school administrators have held a series of workshops to fine-tune the budget. On Mar. 5, the BOF met with the BOE to review the budget as well.

Board of Finance chair Jeffrey Rutishauser characterized Smith’s budget proposal as “the largest proposed annual budget increase in at least 10 years” and explicitly challenged the BOE in the Mar. 5 meeting to look for ways to bring the proposed increase down. He said it was important, after such a tumultuous year, for the town boards to demonstrate strong effort to minimize the tax burden on Wilton residents.

Challenge Accepted

Smith did identify ways to decrease the budget by $765,699. After some discussion, the BOE voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt Smith’s revised FY’22 budget of $84,804,215, which represents a 2.99% increase over the previous year.

The new lower budget reflects the following changes from the Feb. 25 budget proposal:

  • Move 1.0 Cider Mill interventionist and .5 social worker to ESSR II Grant: $172,897
  • Defer Middlebrook bathroom re-model: $40,000
  • Reduce certified salary contingency (enrollment management): $40,000
  • Carousel lease reduction (phone system): $50,000
  • Reduce equipment and furniture lines districtwide: $10,150
  • Reduce Training and Conferences districtwide: $28,407
  • Reduce 1.0 secretarial at Middlebrook (reassign .6 clerical from SPED to MB): $103,000
  • Reduce out-of-district tuition. Special service outplacements revised from three to two: $65,000
  • Reduce 1.0 Certified Wilton High School, enrollment reduction: $110,884
  • Reduce .5 WHS Certified STEM Coach: $50,000
  • Duplicate A/V stipend correction: $7,400
  • Reduce substitute line (based on reduction in training and conferences): $15,000
  • Reduce utility lines: $37,675
  • Adjust OPEB line based on actuary recommendation: $30,000 increase
  • Correct Physical Education salary lines at MB and WHS: $54,286
  • Correct Public Speaking line at WHS: $11,000

From the beginning, Smith had identified key priorities for the budget, with the expectation that the district will be in “recovery mode” at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, after a year responding to the COVID pandemic. While there was some discussion before the vote as to whether the budget reductions might hinder the district’s goals of meeting students needs, both academically and socially/emotionally, ultimately the board members were satisfied.

Board chair Debbie Low concluded the discussion after the vote by saying, “I also want to thank my fellow board members. We all hung together last week, asking some really tough questions, and I think came out with a budget that supports our priorities, recognizes and pays lots of attention to COVID recovery, and comes in at a better year-to-year increase… And now this becomes the Board of Ed proposed budget. And from here, it goes to the Board of Finance.”

A Better Process Going Forward?

Tuesday night’s BOF meeting highlighted yet again the frustration many town officials are experiencing with the budget timeline this year.

Part of that frustration is due to the circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s budget process was aided by an emergency executive order from Gov. Ned Lamont, which gave Wilton some flexibility on the budget process in terms of timing and approval authority.

Town officials were expecting a similar order from the governor this year, but that never materialized, leaving them no alternative but to work through the budget process in an unusually expedited fashion in order to meet the schedule spelled out in the Town Charter. That deadline required the BOS and BOE to submit their budget proposals to the BOF by 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9.

Considering the BOE held its final budget meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, it was able to meet that requirement just under the wire.

As for the Board of Selectmen, unlike past years it didn’t have time to hear the customary presentations from each town department head on how they crunched their numbers. Instead, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice compressed the budget explanation over just a couple of meetings almost single-handedly, and BOS members approved her proposed 3.12% increase to a $33.9 million budget for FY’22 on Wednesday, March 3.

But even apart from issues posed by the pandemic, at least one BOF member would like to see an improved process and a deeper BOE/BOF partnership. Stewart Koenigsberg was particularly vocal on this topic.

“I honestly think there’s a fair amount of discussion we can have [with the BOE] that will be helpful,” he said.

What’s missing, Koenigsberg feels, is a “long-term, more strategic” perspective and “meaningful dialogue.” He went on to say, “How can we as financial experts help the Board of Ed? It should be more collaborative… There’s more of a dialogue that should take place. I just don’t feel good about this process.”

Chris Stroup agreed, but noted the timing of this year’s budget puts officials at a disadvantage.

“Unfortunately we are a bit constrained for this budget, but I do think it’s a great idea to allocate some time… probably over many meetings, so that the BOF really understands how the Board of Ed and Board of Selectmen plan to, to use the vernacular, ‘run the railroad’ over the next few years, and get beyond the year-to-year, tactical discussions and focus longer term on how we set our priorities, how we spend our money,” he said

More Clarity

As the budget process moves forward, the big picture is just now starting to come into focus for the BOF. Rutishauser gave the BOF updates on outstanding issues that will begin to give the overall budget more clarity.

While Rutishauser indicated debt service will be “up a little,” he said the outlook for the Grand List is “quite good.” There was some concern whether COVID would hinder collections, but Rutishauser reported they were “going strong” compared to previous years.

Revenues are generally higher, largely due to conveyance taxes in the booming real estate market, but revenue from other transactional fees are higher as well.

The BOF will use all of these inputs to determine mill rate calculations for taxpayers. But Rutishauser did say there’s one major unknown, in the form of how much money the town stands to receive from federal COVID relief funds. Finding out just how much could be the (multi) million-dollar question.

Next Steps

The BOF will meet with the BOS to review the Board of Selectmen’s proposed budget for FY2022 on March 16.

A public hearing on the proposed BOE budget will be held on March 29.

A public hearing on the proposed BOS budget will be held on March 30.

BOF mill rate deliberations are scheduled for April 6-7.

All meetings are open to the public, but are being held on Zoom during the pandemic.  Look for Zoom links on the town or BOE websites, on the meeting agenda.