Weston's top officials grapple with projected budget increases

Weston Town Hall at 56 Norfield Road in Weston.

Weston Town Hall at 56 Norfield Road in Weston.

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WESTON — Despite the real estate market booming, the town’s top officials are grappling with projected budget increases and how this could impact taxes.

“It’s important for everyone to understand that whatever has transpired in terms of home sales that really doesn’t change the tax base,” Board of Finance Chair Steve Ezzes said in a recent tri-board meeting. “It doesn’t change the tax base until our next revaluation.”

The meeting between the boards of finance, selectmen and education involved a high-level review of the town as it enters the budget season amid the coronavirus crisis. Officials are already projecting more costs in the upcoming fiscal year and are trying to see how they can craft a budget that doesn’t put too much of a burden on taxpayers.

BOF Vice-Chair Rone Baldwin said the town is currently near the top of its peer group in mill rate — at 32.37. He said the gap between Weston and other peer towns — Westport, New Canaan and Darien — is also becoming more striking as Weston’s mill rate continues to climb.

Board of Education Chair Tony Pesco said town’s with low mill rates are using three tools: bonding, commercial revenue and trying to keep budget increases low or level. Weston has hardly any businesses and so the bulk of the town’s revenue comes from residents’ taxes.

“We basically are using two tools and without a significant source of revenues I think it’s very, very difficult to end up with a mill rate that’s going to be competitive with other towns that have a significant revenue base,” Pesco said.

But BOF member Allan Grauberd said the purpose of discussing this early in the budget season was to determine significant changes that could be made in how town and education services are delivered.

“Or, and this is a big or, come to the conclusion that we are kidding ourselves and that we really can’t,” Grauberd said.

First Selectman Chris Spaulding said department heads are preparing to discuss their individual budgets. He said the town will still face its usual fixed costs, which include contractual obligations that call for 2 percent wage increases.

“Everyone is extremely aware of the overall situation in town in terms of the concerns of the mill rate growth,” Spaulding said. “They’ve all been told in one way or another that we want to try and keep the budget obviously as low as possible.”

Similarly, Pesco said the school board and the district’s administration are sensitive to the financial situation in town. However, he said the BOE budget is currently projecting a 4 percent increase if no cuts are made.

Town officials voiced frustration earlier in the year among rising school costs when the BOE proposed a $54 million budget for 2020-21, which was a 2.89 percent increase over the previous year.

“We’re reaching an inflection point where 80 percent of our expenses is salaries and benefits,” Pesco said. “That makes the district what it is, but it’s also the place where if we’re looking for significant savings that’s the place where we have to go find it.”

He added he didn’t see this year being much different from the previous when it came to the budget.

“I think our work is going to be as hard as it was last year,” Pesco said, adding the BOE would again need to go line-by-line to make the budget as cost efficient as possible.

Grauberd said the town has to get to a point where it acknowledges what kind of town it wants to be. He said there needs to be a discussion on whether or not the town should make radical changes, though he didn’t provide any examples.

“I want to get to the point — and again this is my personal wish no one else’s — where we recognize what we can do and what we can’t do,” he said.

But Baldwin said there’s a world of difference between a two, three, or four percent increase in a budget. He said he’s under no illusion with a number of pressures on the budget it will require finding opportunities, but work still needs to be done.

“To me that sort of frames what in the end could be success or failure in terms of us,” Baldwin said.