“Where Are The People Who Care?” Attendance is Sparse for Second Night of Public Hearings on Town Budget

Board of Selectmen budget proposal showcases priorities on infrastructure and prudent budget management in post-pandemic Wilton

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice presents the Board of Selectmen budget at a public hearing on March 24, 2022

The Board of Finance (BOF) hosted a public hearing Thursday night, March 24, on the topic of the FY2023 budget proposed by the Board of Selectmen (BOS).

The meeting came just one night after a public hearing focused on the Board of Education (BOE) budget. Both hearings, which were held in person at the Middlebrook auditorium, were sparsely attended by members of the public who were not Town employees or board members.

That prompted one resident (and former BOS member) Deb McFadden to ask the board members, “Where are the people [who] care about what we’re talking about here?”

Making the same observation, BOF Chair Michael Kaelin implored the public to engage in the budget process that is still ongoing.

“Everybody still has that opportunity [to participate],” Kaelin said. He suggested residents first view the video of the budget presentations made during the two public hearings (posted on the Town website), and to communicate their thoughts to the BOF either by email or in the BOF survey that is underway.

Board of Finance Approach

As he did during the previous night’s public hearing, BOF Chair Michael Kaelin opened the hearing with an explanation of how the BOF will approach the budgets proposed by the BOS and BOE and other factors used to calculate the mill rate. His presentation began with a review of the key “budget highlights”.

OPERATING REQUIREMENTS

  • BOE FY’23 budget request: $87,571,064, a 3.26% ($2,766,849) increase over last year
  • BOS FY’23 budet request: $33,943,364, a 1.37% ($457,878) increase over last year
  • Debt Service: $9,025,210, a 2.16% ($198,814) decrease over last year
  • Tax Relief for Elderly/Disabled: $1,230,750, no change from last year
  • TOTAL Operating Funds Required: $131,845,034, a 2.37% increase ($3,056,172) over last year

FUNDING SOURCES

  • Revenues other than FY’23 property taxes: $5,597,801, a 2.83% ($154,152) increase over last year
  • Use of Excess Fund Balance: $3,667,037, a 24.52% ($1,191,003) decrease over last year. [This leaves a FY’23 General Fund balance of $13,184,503, or 10% of the town’s total operating budget, as required by the Town Charter.]
  • Property Taxes to be collected: $122,580,196

MILL RATE LEVY

  • Total needed to levy: $123,810,946 (combining property taxes and elderly/disabled relief)
  • Net Taxable Grand List (Collectable): $4,357,995,281, a 1.45% ($62,178,642) increase over last year
  • Mill Rate: 28.4101, a 1.94% (0.5416) increase over last year

After presenting the mill rate being considered, Kaelin reminded the audience that Wilton voters ultimately will decide on the budgets.

“I emphasize that the Board of Finance’s role is merely to recommend the budgets to the Town Meeting,” Kaelin said. “The ultimate decision on whether to approve these budgets is made at the Town Meeting.”

He went on to discuss what the BOF will consider in making its budget recommendations:

  1. The views of the Town’s citizens
  2. The financial resources of the Town
  3. The extent to which, in the Board of Finance’s collective judgment, the BOE and BOS can find savings within their respective budgets
  4. The appropriateness of revenue, debt service and General Fund balance amounts

Kaelin made it clear the BOF will scrutinize every line item in both the BOS and BOE budgets.

“We do not have line item authority over the BOE budget. We do have line item authority over the BOS budget. But in neither case are we relieved of our responsibility to look at each line item in each budget to make a determination of, in our judgment, whether savings could be achieved in either budget,” Kaelin said.

BOS Budget Presentation

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice says she is often asked by residents, “Where do my tax dollars go?”

She chose to present the BOS budget in the context of the typical Wilton taxpayer who pays the median $14,000 in real estate taxes.

Of that $14,000, just over $3,500  — about 25% — goes to the BOS budget, while just over $9,100 (65%) goes to the BOE budget.

Source: 3-24-22 BOS Public Presentation

Of the $3,548 that a Wilton taxpayer funds in the BOS budget, the largest percentage ($1,437, or 40.6%) would go to public safety, followed by public works ($418, or 11.8%), regulatory departments (e.g., the Health Department, Building Department etc., at $336, or 9.5%) and the Wilton Library ($302, or 8.5%) as the top budget areas.

Source: 3-24-22 BOS Public Presentation

From the very beginning of the budget process, Vanderslice has continued to put the FY2023 budget  proposal in historical perspective, often comparing it to 2020 as an important pre-COVID benchmark.

Source: 3-24-22 BOS Public Presentation

At Thursday night’s public hearing, Vanderslice compared the budgets as far back as 2016, when her tenure began. She was particularly proud of that comparison, which shows a mere 0.67% average annual increase over the past seven years.

“I think that’s a pretty good number,” Vanderslice said.

Source: 3-24-22 BOS Public Presentation

“We only budget what we need and what we know we will spend,” Vanderslice said. “We don’t want to be under budget because we over-budgeted. We’re not putting cushions on our budgets.”

She also noted that staffing reductions, favorable collective bargaining negotiations and energy cost reductions had aided the BOS in achieving low budget increases over the past several years.

Vanderslice pointed out that wages are the primary driver of the proposed budget increase.

Focus on Infrastructure

“The Town has a significant amount of infrastructure needs,” Vanderslice stated. “There’s been a lot of things that have been deferred.”

“We are in a really unique position in that we have an unprecedented amount of money available to us to meet all of those years of backlog,” she said, citing the $1.4 million in the BOS Infrastructure Fund and $5.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act grants, among other potential grants.

Source: 3-24-22 BOS Public Presentation

Vanderslice credited Department of Public Works Director and Town Engineer Frank Smeriglio for his success in securing over $20 million in grants for Wilton projects. She noted that the proposed budget includes hiring an additional engineer to assist in the time-consuming, complex process of applying for and managing grant monies.

“It’s going to be very important during this time period when all this money is raining down from the state that we don’t lose out,” Vanderslice said. “We need to make sure that we have the resources, that not only can we apply for these grants, but we can manage them.”

Public Comment

Wilton resident Lucas Traub spoke in favor of the BOS budget proposal, citing public safety.

“I can see that most of the [BOS] budget does go to public safety,” Traub said. “Nobody really wants to be in need of the public safety resources in their town, but once they do, they realize the money is well spent. I’ve experienced that with Wilton fire and police department[s].”

Another resident spoke about concerns pertaining to a proposed housing development in Cannondale. Since the topic was not germaine to the budget discussion, the BOF and BOS did not not address those comments.

Former Selectwoman Deb McFadden also took the floor. She first thanked both the BOS and BOF for the work leading up to the proposed budgets and acknowledged the Town’s success in managing the budgets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now I just want to say thank you,” McFadden said. “The last couple of years have been pretty difficult for the Town to address COVID and all the rippling effects through the entire community — how to stay safe, stay on budget, [and] address everything in an appropriate way where people feel supported.”

While praising the proposed budget’s focus on infrastructure needs, McFadden felt one opportunity is being missed.

“I really appreciate addressing the infrastructure needs. Protecting what we already have is so important,” McFadden said. “So I would like to support the concept, but also to broaden it. We need to look at sustainable practices, not only in terms of how it impacts our budget, but our responsibility as a community and stewards of this portion of the earth here at Wilton.”

“We need to step up to the plate, to do our part in climate change,” McFadden continued. “Going forward, please keep in mind not only the cost savings, but the responsibility that we have.”

“I support this budget,” McFadden reiterated. “My concern is where are the people… Where are the people who care about what we’re talking about here? If 15% of the people don’t show up to actually vote, the budget automatically passes. I feel better when the budget passes because people vote for it than when it passes by default, because not enough people show up.”

“We are still a community that has to come together once a year to talk about who we are, what we want, and how much we want to spend,” McFadden said.

Wilton resident Michael Salit spoke during the hearing in support of the new police headquarters.

“Clearly we need a new police facility,” Salit said.

Vanderslice responded that the proposed new facility would be on the ballot at the Annual Town Meeting as a bonded project.

Wilton resident Steve Hudspeth echoed support for the police station project, and also praised the Town’s budget support for the Wilton Library.

“Public/private partnerships like the [Wilton] Library are really extraordinary, and the Library does so much for this Town,” Hudspeth said. “That’s always very heartening to see that we do operate in that way, where most of the support actually comes from the community, but the Town makes a very generous contribution to it, too. It’s a really important part of what we do together as a community.”

Hudspeth also urged the BOF to have a longterm, strategic perspective.

“We build for the future in this town,” Hudspeth said. “Your decisions are so important. They make the financial foundation for our community move forward.”

 

 

1 COMMENT

  1. The attendance was certainly disappointing, but I think it would have been much better if the meeting hadn’t been scheduled for the same night as the WHS concert. This gave a lot of people ( including me ) the difficult decision of attending to their family or attending to the polity.

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