Town Budgets in the Time of COVID: What You Need to Know Now About This Year’s Budget Process

It’s that time of year again… budget season for the town of Wilton.

The town is better served when all residents are informed and participating in the budget process. Whether you are new to town or have been here a while, whether you have kids in the Wilton schools or not, whether you are a budget pro or have always avoided the topic, we’ve put together everything you need to know to observe and participate in the FY-2022 budget setting process.

As a general primer for anyone new, Wilton has a “Town Meeting” form of government. Once a year, the town has to set a budget for the next fiscal year. That budget basically helps determine how much residents will be charged in property taxes to cover the town’s needs.

The budget is set at the Annual Town Meeting (the event), traditionally held on the first Tuesday of May, with an additional day to complete voting on the following Saturday.

During the Annual Town Meeting, town and school officials propose the budgets they say they need for the next year. Each Wilton resident and property owner who is an eligible voter is considered a member of the Town Meeting (the voting body) and gets to vote at the Annual Town Meeting whether or not to approve that budget.

While there are some particular deadlines, rules and regulations that can make it more complicated to understand, that’s the general process as dictated by law under Wilton’s Town Charter.

But now in 2021, of course, COVID-19 is complicating the process in a much different and bigger way. As always, GMW will keep you updated on how the budget process is proceeding and if anything might change in the coming days leading up to this year’s Annual Town Meeting and budget vote.

Time is of the Essence

The Board of Finance officially kicked off budget season in a Feb. 18 special meeting, led by BOF Chair Jeffrey Rutishauser, in which key dates for the budget process were established.

The special meeting was warranted to keep the town on schedule, in accordance with the budget timeline set out in the Town Charter. Town officials had been expecting an executive order from Governor Ned Lamont that would give them 30 additional days to finalize budgets this year to deal with COVID-related uncertainties, but the order was never enacted.

“We were anticipating that the executive order of the governor would give us a little more timing leeway,” Rutishauser said during the meeting. “We’ve run out of time. We can’t wait for that anymore. We are still ruled under the Town Charter… all the things we are doing tonight are consistent with the Town Charter and the budget cycle.”

Sticking to the Schedule

The Board of Education (BOE) and the Board of Selectmen (BOS) will be developing their budgets on simultaneous tracks, with Board of Finance (BOF) involvement along the way, followed by public hearings on both proposed budgets. Key deadlines and meeting dates are outlined below:

  • February 25: BOE meeting, Superintendent presents budget proposal to BOE
  • March 1 (or earlier): BOE sends budget to BOF
  • March 2-3: BOE budget workshops
  • March 4: BOE-BOF budget review (during BOE meeting)
  • March 5 (or earlier): BOS sends budget to BOF
  • March 16: BOS-BOF budget review (during BOS meeting)
  • March 29: Public Hearing on BOE budget
  • March 30: Public Hearing on BOS budget
  • April 6, 7 and 8: BOF mil rate deliberations (Rutishauser noted that in past years the third date was not needed for deliberations)
  • May 8: Annual Town Meeting (ATM) followed by budget vote

Wary of COVID, Vanderslice Pushes For Modifications

Although the various boards are proceeding with their budget process under the assumption there will be no executive order extension, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice is still urgently pressing for one. She is working through state legislators and with fellow municipal leaders to convince the governor to issue an executive order like the one enacted last year, that would not only allow for more time for the process but also give the BOF the authority to make the final budget decision.

She told GMW she also plans to raise the issue in a scheduled call with the governor’s team on Wednesday, Feb. 24. She expects other municipal leaders on the call to be in unison on this issue.

Vanderslice is pursuing the executive order not just for the luxury of more time, but because of the potential she foresees for serious complications in the ATM logistics. The ATM would likely take place while the threat of COVID-19 spread is still a threat to the community. If social distancing requirements and restrictions on large groups gathering are still in place in early May, as Vanderslice expects, the typical ATM format (a gathering of hundreds of people in the Wilton High School Clune Auditorium) would be impossible.

Vanderslice emailed state legislators to ask for help to press the governor to issue an executive order that “gives municipalities the flexibility to determine the budget adoption process that works best for them.”

In the email, Vanderslice elaborated on several potential complications of holding an in-person ATM even if an alternative venue could be found (such as the outdoor stadium) and the negative consequences that might ensue (such as older voters hesitating to attend large public functions, thereby favoring younger voters and skewing the demographics).

She implored the legislators, “We need your help to get the message to the Governor’s Office that as with last year, we need the flexibility to use a budget process that best meets the needs and expectations of our residents and maintains equity among voters.”

In a separate email to the BOS, Vanderslice said, “We are beginning to investigate the logistics of the ATM meeting” and mentioned exploring a number of scenarios, including, for example, the possibility of recording the BOE/BOS/BOF presentations for advance viewing.

But with so much still unknown and a lot of contingencies to plan for, including possibly needing to divert personnel and resources from COVID vaccine clinics in order to focus on ATM planning, Vanderslice and her peers are hopeful some solution can be found.

BOS Meetings

The next BOS meeting is Monday, March 1. An agenda will be posted 24 hours in advance (or one business day prior–Friday, Feb. 26) on the BOS webpage on the town website.

All town meetings are open to the public but are being held on Zoom during COVID. To attend a BOS meeting remotely, you can find the Zoom link on the meeting agenda page.

To submit a comment during the meeting, send an email to lori.bufano@wiltonct.org. Include “PUBLIC COMMENT” in the subject line along with your name and Wilton address. The email will be read and reviewed during the public comment portion of the agenda.

If you miss a meeting, you can find the agenda, minutes and recorded Zoom meeting video on the town website.

BOE Meetings

Superintendant Kevin Smith will present his proposed budget for the 2021-2022 school year at the next Board of Education meeting, on Thursday, Feb. 25. This will be the board’s first discussion on the budget.

Following a series of workshops and the input of the Board of Finance, the BOE is scheduled to vote on Smith’s budget at a special meeting on Tuesday, March 9.

Board of Education meeting agendas, minutes and recorded meeting videos can be accessed through the BoardDocs menu on the left side of the BOE webpage.

To attend a meeting remotely, you may find the Zoom link on the agenda page.

Residents may ask questions or comment during these meetings, but they must be submitted by email to denoviol@wiltonps.org and note “PUBLIC COMMENT” in the subject line, along with your name and Wilton address. Public comments are limited to two minutes. The email will be read during the public comment portion of the agenda.

The Board of Ed budget documents will be posted on the BOE webpage under the “Materials and Reports section” on the right side of the webpage (the 2020-2021 budget documents are there, too).

Expressing Your Views to the BOE

The BOE encourages input from the public. A statement on the BOE webpage offers these important reminders:

“The Board of Education relies on input from the voters to help it make informed decisions about what is right for Wilton. Letters and emails are always welcome, but please remember that all communications sent to Town boards and officials become part of the public record and are subject to legal requirements for disclosure and retention.”

Emails should include your name and Wilton mailing address. Emails sent to an individual board member will be shared with all board members. (Individual board member emails are listed under “Members of the Board of Education” under the “Materials and Reports” section on the right side of the BOE webpage.)

However, because correspondence to any individual board member will ultimately be shared with the entire board, the BOE encourages emails to be sent to all BOE members using the single address, boe@wiltonps.org.