The COVID-19 crisis has upended Wilton’s normal procedures for setting the annual budget. With communal gathering prohibited until further notice, the governor has ordered CT towns to adjust their process; for Wilton, that meant the Board of Selectmen has authorized the Board of Finance to set the FY2021 budget and mill rate.
Last week, the three main boards–BOS, BOF and Board of Education–met to discuss the current state of affairs for the town and the impact the crisis has had, both on expenditures the schools and the town have had to make as a result, as well as on the personal financial situation for many residents. As a whole, the three boards decided that the BOS and BOE would re-evaluate the budgets they had prepared to submit to the BOF to find additional savings.
Chairs of both the BOS and BOE told the BOF they wanted time to consider where revisions could be made.
The three boards also decided to take full use of the time that Gov. Ned Lamont had given towns in his order about setting municipal budgets, which extended Wilton’s deadline to June 4 (30 days from the day on which the Annual Town Meeting had originally been scheduled, May 4).
Waiting “until the last minute” would allow officials to gather as much information as possible on changing factors that would have an impact on town finances, and give residents time to email the BOF with public comments.
“We will, as a Board of Ed, want to at some point meet… to look at the budget that was adopted by the BOE back in–it seems a lifetime ago–February. And then try to find out more information about our end-of-year balance, what added expenses we’re going to have, what is coming under budget–all of those issues; look at next year’s proposal; and then I am sure want to make some revisions,” said Debbie Low, BOE chair.
Her counterpart, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice agreed. “I think it would be a lot more helpful to the taxpayers if there are going to be budget revisions recommended by the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education,” she said, later adding, “We’re going to go back and look at all of our costs that are budgeted and see what we can come up with.”
Among the changing financial factors the boards would consider are any property assessment appeals approved by the Board of Assessment Appeals, as well as other revenue numbers.
Factors on the Board of Selectmen Budget
Vanderslice said that the current year’s budget was running with a favorability of $457,000, before incurring what she called a “long, long list of direct costs associated with COVID-19.” But, she said she believes that current surplus would be enough to cover those expenses.
However, she said there are concerns about the proposed FY2021 budget.
- Property conveyance revenue: These are collected from property sales/transfers. “Who knows what’s going to happen to the real estate market,” she said.
- Building permit fee revenue: “We are concerned about whether some [commercial] projects will move forward,” Vanderslice said.
- Tax revenue: Town officials are still analyzing several orders made by Gov. Lamont since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. “The Board of Selectmen is going to have to either offer a deferral program or a low-interest rate program for taxes that are due on July 1.”
- Unbudgeted expenses: “If this continues past June 30, we’re obviously going to have expenses that weren’t budgeted. One of the big issues in our budget is that we did plan to move to the state plan for medical [insurance]. Those conversations were supposed to be happening this month and they’re not. So we know moving over will be delayed. That plan is subsidized by the state and based on the deficits the state’s going to be running, maybe they will not fund it as much as they had planned. That’s at least a $300,000 risk to our budget, which is 1% of our budget,” Vanderslice explained.
- State Grants: Vanderslice said that there’s concern about whether the state will be able to fulfill any promised municipal or project grants.
Factors on the Board of Education Budget
Low said the BOE anticipates a favorable balance at the end of the current fiscal year, although there are COVID-19 related costs.
“What that balance will be remains to be determined. We have had expenses such as a software platform related to COVID-19, some additional technology costs, some additional professional development costs, some additional software costs. Although [we can cover] all those costs that I just mentioned, the biggest unknown at this point and that will have an impact on our end of year balance, is the bus contract. That’s still being negotiated,” Low explained.
The schools’ CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz said the cost to the district for transportation that is being renegotiated is around $280,000 a month. “That’s going to have a significant impact on our end of the year balance.”
In addition to the bus contract other factors include:
- Savings from substitute teachers: Superintendent Kevin Smith said the district is “running favorable because we’re not using substitute teachers right now.”
- Special Education costs: “An unknown for us is the magnitude of compensatory education services for our special ed students that we might have to provide once we’re back in session. For the governor’s directive, and the federal guidance as well, we are responding to our students with IEPs to the best that we can. But there are some services that can’t be delivered in a virtual platform effectively, and those services will need to be provided at a later date. The cost of that is not yet known and I think it will be some time before we even have a sense of the magnitude. So that’s a significant budget risk,” Smith said, adding that some of those costs would possibly also impact the FY2021 budget needs.
- Shutdown-related expenses: As Low had alluded to earlier, Smith described some of the costs the district has incurred since transitioning to at-home learning. “That number is just over $100,000. We’ve done things like buy a software platform called Presence Learning, which is enabling our SPED teachers to serve students with IEPs. We’ve upgraded our zoom platform. We’re also upgrading our phone system so teachers can use the school district phone system to call students from home. And we’ve purchased a range of library and technology resources.”
Economic Factors Affecting Residents
Board of Finance member Peter Balderston commented on the economic impact the COVID-19 crisis has had.
“As of today, we’ve received almost 17 million unemployment claims. And I heard a factoid this morning that April mortgage payments–only 69% were paid on time. I don’t know how that is going to impact us locally. We have time to try to understand what the impact of that is on our taxpayers… As a behavior of proactive businesses and institutions is a thought towards, How do we deal with this?”
He added, “There’s no business-as-usual here in my opinion. I just don’t think we know the extent of what the damage is going to be when you shut down an economy or a big part of it. All you have to do is drive around town to see how things have changed. But how that’s going to impact us financially, it remains to be seen.”
Balderston said he’s keeping the taxpayer foremost in his mind. “How many people will have lost their jobs, and what that means in terms of collection rates for our town, those kinds of things. So I don’t really have any particular position other than I think we have to be very vigilant about how this might impact us locally.”
Board of Finance chair Jeff Rutishauser echoed his fellow board member.
“Their ability to pay taxes depends on whether they’re employed or not or what happened to their business, and their ability to pay. And those are the kinds of things we’re going to have to wrestle with, because it’s fine if your house has got value, but if you can’t pay the tax bill because you’re out of work, you’re really in a bad situation,” he said, adding, “Some of those concerns and those financial stresses, we’re not going to know and we’re going to have to make some educated guesses. How well people can pay their tax bill both in the first six months and also come next January–what’s the economy going to be like then?”
Michael Kaelin made a plea to the public to provide as much feedback and information as possible to him and his fellow BOF members, as well as to the other two boards.
“The problem with the published statistics and information is that it’s not specific to Wilton and in many ways we are different. All of us want to make decisions based on the best information possible,” he said. “I just want to make a request to the public: don’t just give us your opinions, give us facts too. If there’s specific information about how this is impacting on people in town, please provide us with that. That’s what we need to make the best decisions possible.”
At the end of the meeting, Vanderslice noted that since the crisis began she has been participating on conference calls with town leaders from across the state. “One thing that is very clear is this town is so cohesive, the government that we have, how well everybody works. I’ll be on these calls where they’re not hearing from this department or that department or the conflicts in other towns. It’s just great that we don’t have [that conflict]. This meeting is a perfect example of it. Everybody should be proud of the way that things operate and how everyone works co-operatively in this town.”
The members of the BOF planned to meet on Tuesday, April 14, and put together initial feedback for both of the other boards’ previously submitted budgets.
The Board of Finance then set a deadline of May 12, (the BOF’s regularly-scheduled May meeting date) for the BOE and BOS to submit adjusted budgets. That would then provide a two-week period for members of the public to submit comments before the BOF would reconvene on June 1 and June 2 to set the budget and mill rate.
To reach the boards: