View from Glen Hill: Lean town budget deserves passage

Having written on the school budget last time, this time I’m addressing the town budget.  

The quality of town services really affects the long-term strength of our town. One of the especially good things about our town administrations over the last dozen years and continuing now is that they have resisted the great temptation to kick things down the road. Doing that kicking means not only that issues build up unaddressed to create cumulative catastrophes but also that they tend to cost much more than if addressed as they arise — as, for example, with the maintenance of our 123 miles of town roads.  

Our town operates with very lean staffing. While there is cross-training in positions, there is no manpower reserve in function after function. Notwithstanding that leanness, things are done exceptionally well because our dedicated town officials and employees work so diligently and faithfully. They have an enormous degree of very appropriate professional pride in getting things done effectively no matter what the constraints. First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice has also wisely adopted a policy of allowing vacancies to form by attrition, not lay-off, and then moving current staff into them. This kind of thoughtful HR approach builds long-term relationships that benefit us all. And that, paired with excellent fiscal stewardship by our able town leaders and successful public-private partnerships that marshal private funds to work alongside public funds to accomplish important town functions, make for a powerful combination for the good of us all.

In terms of specific functions, our police and fire departments are already very leanly staffed, and these are not areas in which it makes sense to skimp given what is at stake. In our police awards ceremony a month ago, officers who did a major car-fire rescue, accomplished moments before fire engulfed the entire vehicle, were recognized — as were others whose service was above and beyond — in everything from detective work to patrolling. There is no doubt Wilton would represent very good pickings indeed for folks who inflict already high crime rates on nearby municipalities but for the deterrent effect of our really outstanding police department. Yet staffing for 24/7 coverage imposes significant manpower demands. Short-changing those demands works to our town’s detriment in the long run for sure and sometimes also in the much shorter run, and once our reputation is lost for being a really tough town in which to get away with crime, it takes a long time and a lot more expense to bring those who would do us ill back to an understanding of tough enforcement realities here.

We’ve been fortunate in our police force, as in so many other areas of our town’s professional staffing, to be able to promote very effectively from within with those proven in both ability and dedication to our town, as with the recent promotion of career Wilton officer John Lynch to be our new police chief succeeding Robert Crosby, who similarly rose through the ranks, as did Mike Lombardo and Ed Kulhawik before them.

The list is impressively long of other outstanding public servants whose years of dedicated service in everything from HR, finance and IT, to the town clerk’s office, social services, public works, P&Z, elections, emergency services, and parks and recreation keep our town functioning so well even with really lean staffing. To force cutbacks in those kinds of town resources is to shoot ourselves in the foot both short-term and long-term and also to change a foundational part of our town character in a very troubling way. So it’s really heartening that our Board of Finance has seen it the same way in their decision-making in these financially challenging times, and for that they should be applauded, along with our Board of Selectmen and Board of Education on their budget work.

If you care about our town, vote. A low turnout — including at the Annual Town Meeting itself on Tuesday evening where motions to reduce the budget can be made from the floor and are voted on right then — increases the risk that a vocal minority who vote very faithfully could create a potentially disastrous result. And as I said last time in this column, it is unwise to vote “too low” on the Annual Town Meeting ballot even if that is your opinion since all votes opposing the budget, too-low or too-high, are added together to determine whether the proposed budget on the ballot passes or goes back for retooling by the Board of Finance — not a desirable outcome.