In an unusually lengthy meeting Tuesday evening (July 11), Wilton’s Board of Finance (BOF) delved deeply into discussions about how the board operates and communicates with the public.

While several board members have expressed an eagerness to “move on” from the somewhat rocky FY2024 budget process, they have also taken time to reflect on the experience and how to make it smoother in the future.

During the July 11 meeting, board members at times defended against criticisms they received during the budget process and at other times acknowledged the need to improve, for the benefit of the public as well as board harmony. Key topics the board discussed at length:

  • Individual board members’ public comments and communications outside of board meetings
  • How to solicit information from residents about their views and opinions (including via the BOF survey)
  • Sharing data and information that would help residents understand board decisions and help inform their votes on the budget

A video recording of the entire BOF discussion can be found on the Town website.

Public Communications

Over the last few months, the BOF has had ongoing discussions about the appropriateness of individual board members engaging in debate with residents about board matters outside of BOF meetings, whether on social media or other public forums.

The topic came to the forefront during the FY’24 budget process and was even addressed by Town counsel at the March 11 BOF meeting, when the budget debate was becoming particularly heated.

The BOF discussed the topic again in May after BOF member Sandy Arkell emailed the board to recommend board members stop publicly engaging in debates with residents about the budget process outside of BOF meetings.

BOF Chair Michael Kaelin made a similar case on July 11, but his objections went beyond comments made by board members on social media. He also cited BOF member Chris Stroup‘s “Vote No, Too Low” ad campaign as well as members writing Letters to the Editor for publication in Wilton news outlets — even though Kaelin had written more than one himself.

“One thing we should all be able to agree on is that no one can speak on behalf of the [BOF] outside of the [BOF] meetings,” Kaelin began. “It’s really difficult to separate yourself from being an individual from being a member of the [BOF] especially if what you’re communicating about is something we have discussed, or will discuss, at [BOF] meetings.”

He pointed out that individual communications are inherently “imbalanced” and “one-sided,” since other board members are not participating in the dialogue.

“I’m not criticizing any one member of the BOF for anything they did in the past,” Kaelin added. “But from experience, I’ve learned it just becomes a free-for-all. We stop acting like a board, and then we’re just acting like a bunch of individuals with our own point[s] of view.”

“We all took an oath here, to comply with the Charter, and that requires we act by majority vote,” Kaelin continued. “We have the opportunity serving on this board to advocate face-to-face with each other and debate in public meetings. If we start taking that debate outside of public meetings, then we stop acting like a board and just become citizens expressing our own point[s] of view.”

BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg — perhaps the board member who most often engaged in debate with residents outside of board meetings, including in letters to the editor and comment sections on GOOD Morning Wilton‘s website — said he generally agreed with Kaelin’s comments, with perhaps one exception.

Koenigsberg said he believes that most residents are either missing “facts” or misrepresenting data in expressing their opinions about the town and school budgets. He was also critical of “the local press” for failing to accurately report the substance of BOF meetings and for publishing misleading Letters to the Editor. (Editor’s note: GOOD Morning Wilton stands by its reporting on every BOF meeting throughout the budget process. Letters to the Editor must meet our stated guidelines about accuracy and being factual for publishing.)

“If there is information out there that is incorrect, we should have some mechanism for responding,” Koenigsberg said. “We should get information out there, in summarized fashion, so people can make more informed decisions, without relying on social media for their information.”

Kaelin responded that the BOF meetings are an appropriate forum.

“If there’s information that any member of the BOF believes needs to be communicated to the public, then you should raise it at a BOF meeting,” Kaelin said.

While Koenigsberg did not explicitly say whether he would refrain from public debate outside BOF meetings, he did advocate for more proactive communications from the BOF to the public to inform them of information the BOF considers important, particularly as it relates to the Board of Education (BOE) and Board of Selectmen (BOS) budgets.

Sharing Information

Koenigsberg cited First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice‘s monthly updates as one model for the BOF to consider. Residents can subscribe to receive them by email or find them on the Town website.

Koenigsberg was not alone in contemplating that type of communication from the BOF to the public.

“It also keeps the public engaged. The more public engagement, the better,” board member Matt Raimondi said. “A good starting point for that, so they know exactly what we’re saying and exactly how we’re thinking, [is] a letter that goes out every month or quarterly, whatever the right cadence is. It’s a way [to] help with public engagement.”

Stroup echoed the notion.

“The more we can share with the public about what we are doing and why we are doing it, the better off we are,” Stroup said, adding it would be “a terrific idea” to offer brief documents that would be easily accessible by voters to avoid potential misunderstandings on topics such as budget recommendations or the mill rate.

Questions remain as to precisely what the BOF communications might consist of and how they would be disseminated. Koenigsberg suggested developing a communications plan in the coming months. Kaelin asked board members to submit more specific ideas.

Receiving Resident Input

Communication is a two-way street. The BOF also discussed the information received from residents that helps guide their board decisions.

The BOF talked about the value and perceptions of the surveys the BOF has conducted; whether changes should be considered; whether other Town boards could participate in the same survey; the ability to see data trends over time; how the upcoming property revaluations might impact resident opinions; and other issues.

No specific decisions about future surveys were made.

To Give Or Not To Give Budget Guidance?

At the July 11 meeting, Vanderslice urged the board to give budget guidance to the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Education in advance of the next (FY2025) budget planning cycle.

The BOF members seemed inclined to develop such budget guidance — something they had declined to do last year before the FY’24 budgets were developed, despite Vanderslice making that same request last July in anticipation of a challenging budget environment.

The board has already started to obtain some of the data needed for budget and mill rate projection scenarios.

“We’ll get as much financial data as we can by September, and at the September meeting, we will try then to see if we can provide guidance to the [BOS] and [BOE],” Kaelin said. “We’ve got to get it done by October if it’s going to be useful to them.”

More BOF News

The July 11 meeting also featured the following discussion and action:

  • Following the BOF’s brief discussion on June 13 about Wilton’s tax credit and deferral program for the elderly and individuals with disabilities, Vanderslice presented the BOF with some explanation and history on the program, including a memo sent to the BOF before the meeting. BOF members asked several questions about the interest rate, which is “subject to change no more than once a year by the Board of Selectmen in consultation with the Board of Finance,” according to the Town Charter. The BOS was inclined to leave the interest rate unchanged at 2.75%.
  • Vanderslice also explained that the Board of Selectmen is in the process of identifying potential appointments to a new committee being formed to explore options for the future use and badly-needed renovations of the town-owned “Yellow House” at Ambler Farm. Koenigsberg and fellow board member Rich Santosky volunteered to represent the BOF on that new committee.
  • Due to the meeting length, the board agreed to postpone discussing several items that Stroup had proposed be added to a future agenda. Because some of his proposed discussion topics had been addressed during that evening’s meeting, Stroup offered to revise the list for the next meeting.
  • Among his proposed topics, Stroup had suggested an agenda item for a board vote on whether he should resign, following his “Vote No, Too Low” advertising campaign during the FY’24 budget process. Kaelin clarified comments he made at an earlier meeting which he feared had been misinterpreted as calling for Stroup’s resignation. Board members affirmed no one was seeking Stroup’s resignation and they determined that such a vote was unnecessary.

2 replies on “With Lessons Learned from FY’24 Budget Process, Board of Finance Considers Ways to Improve Engagement with Residents”

  1. Hopefully, Wilton voters will elect a pro-school majority to the BoF this November and thus render most of these “messaging issues” moot for the next 2 budget cycles, as the BoF will no longer be desperately trying to justify actions that most of the public disagrees with.

    That being said, I do think that the pro-school side also needs to offer up better hard data with which to refute some of the bad-faith arguments commonly offered up by the anti-school side; for example, the the insistence that budgets can scale linearly with enrollment, and that if Wilton spends more per student relative to such-and-such other town it must be because our schools are inefficient somehow.

    Having studied the numbers myself, I’m extremely confident those two points can be smacked down (and for all the anti-school side’s insistence that there’s somehow magic secret data that proves them right, none of the data they’ve alluded to would do that), but somebody needs to arrange that all in a format that the public could understand; make up a spreadsheet demonstrating the actual budget impact of adding/subtracting X many kids (a 5% reduction in enrollment at Miller-Driscoll does not mean we get to spend 5% less on music teachers) and another one comparing our budget item-by-item with neighboring towns, and offer some top-line numbers / highlights in an article or Letter to the Editor. This would be a good project for the district, or the BoE, or a pro-school BoF member, but if none of them can be bothered to do it, it’ll probably fall to some Random Concerned Citizen Who’s Good At Financial Math And Owns A Copy Of Microsoft Excel like myself.

  2. There are so many ways the town can improve communications, and there are many talented comms professionals in the town who can help. I recommend an advisory committee comprised of volunteers from above to help form a program or even a few actionable tactics.

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