First Selectman Bill Brennan: Future plans to build on past successes

At the close of 2014, which he described as “a really good year for the town,” First Selectman Bill Brennan said he was looking forward to continuing in 2015 some of the work that was started in the year just ended.

In a year-end interview with The Bulletin last month, Mr. Brennan reviewed both the ups — grants and completed projects — and the downs — continuing controversy over renovating Miller-Driscoll — but focused mainly on the positive.

Topping his list was the nearly $1.5 million in state grants the town received, including a $500,000 STEAP grant to build a pedestrian walkway and bridge connecting the Wilton train station with the town center and $425,000 to improve and add sidewalks in Wilton Center.

The pedestrian walkway, which has been in his sights for several years, will take most of the year to design, he said. Conduit already in place will enable it to be lighted.

The sidewalk grant will be used to make more sidewalks ADA-compliant. He also wants to improve the River Road area. Mr. Brennan pointed out that the grant restricts construction to the town center.

He said the financial health of the town is “very good,” adding that the town’s pension funding stands at 91%.

Thirty-one miles of town roads have been repaved, and two to three more miles will be done in the spring when the third year of the road restoration program is completed, putting the town “well ahead” of the original plan of repaving 50 miles in five years.

The Yankee Gas project finally got under way and finished a month ahead of schedule. Wilton Library has been connected, and conversion of the high school as well as Middlebrook and Cider Mill schools is taking place. A second phase would take the gas lines up to Miller-Driscoll.

“If we stayed with oil, we’d have to remove the in-ground tanks and replace them with above-ground tanks,” he said of the schools, a project that could cost $200,000 to $300,000. “We are just waiting to hear from the School Sisters of Notre Dame” if they want to be part of the project.

Construction on Comstock Community Center — the capital project was approved by voters last May — is expected to begin Jan. 15. The Parks and Recreation Department will move within the building while work takes place.

“It will be like a new facility,” Mr. Brennan said.

The town also secured 39.5 acres of open space on Seeley Road at a cost of $2.5 million.

“That’s a major accomplishment,” Mr. Brennan said of the conservation easement. “It’s the last premium piece of open space available. We tried desperately to get money from the state, but in the end we worked well with the [Wilton Conservation] Land Trust.” The land trust contributed $300,000 toward the project.

Along the same lines, the Norwalk River Valley Trail took a giant leap forward. “The fact we’ve got two major sections completed is a testament to those working on it,” he said, specifically mentioning the work of Pat Sesto, director of Wilton Environmental Affairs. “Wilton’s made a lot of progress,” he said of the trail that could eventually run from Norwalk to Danbury.

Pleased with the response to the unveiling of the first sculpture as part of a municipal art program, he said the town will go forward adding more works of art.

“It adds interest” to the town, Mr. Brennan said. “We will be doing this gradually and tastefully.

“It’s not a new idea, but I think it fits well for Wilton.”

To help raise the visibility of the town center, Mr. Brennan said, a “Welcome to Wilton” sign is planned for the Horseshoe Pond area.

The past year also saw the comings and goings of town officials. Mr. Brennan noted the welcoming of interim Fire Chief Ron Kanterman and the departure of Police Chief Michael Lombardo as well as two selectmen: Hal Clark and Ted Hoffstatter.

Michael Kaelin has replaced Mr. Clark. “I’ve known Mike for years,” Mr. Brennan said. “His legal expertise will be especially helpful.”

Mr. Brennan has been frustrated in a search for a facilities manager, a position that was approved with the latest town budget. Qualified candidates willing to work for a municipal salary are limited and the town has not been able to close a deal.

Miller-Driscoll

Despite these accomplishments, the past year has not been all rosy. The biggest controversy has involved the $50-million Miller-Driscoll renovation, which voters narrowly approved in September.

It is one of the biggest undertakings of the town in the last 10 to 15 years, but it has generated an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among a core group of citizens who believe many aspects of the project were mishandled, from the composition of the building committee to the promotion of the project to citizens.

The discord has had its effects.

“One of my disappointments this year has been the continuing discord and negative activity of a small group of individuals,” Mr. Brennan said. “Wilton depends on citizen volunteers to serve on boards, commissions and various committees. I am concerned that irresponsible personal attacks only discourage people from serving our community in the future. One citizen said to me, ‘I’m not interested in serving; who needs the abuse?’

“The governing process is not easy and it takes a lot of hard work, especially on complex building projects,” he continued. “The citizens who serve on building committees, without compensation, also pay taxes and do their best to make cost-effective decisions, based on their detailed knowledge of all the facts.

“Critics who do not know all the facts pick away at one piece of information after another, besieging the town with [Freedom of Information] requests, the sole purpose being to find some alleged incompetence. As a result, town and school employees have had to spend inordinate amounts of time locating documents, incurring attorney fees for legal assistance on these requests and costing Wilton’s taxpayers a substantial amount of money.”

He is also frustrated in what he sees as the proliferation of misinformation.

“Critics continuing to state misleading information is also disingenuous,” he said. “As an example, one of our citizens assailed the Board of Selectmen and the volunteer building committee at a meeting reported in the press that the school renovation project started as a $5-million project and has ballooned into a $50-million one. It was never a $5-million one, but that reality doesn’t keep this citizen from saying it and confusing the public.

“Citizens have a right to know, to ask questions and to challenge government officials. It is our democratic process. However, it cuts both ways, and when some citizens refuse to accept the valid majority vote on a major capital project referendum, which is also our democratic process, they do a disservice to the community.”

Mr. Brennan called for greater collaboration the future.

“Wilton has a well-deserved reputation of working together. What I would like to see for 2015 is a greater effort by the Miller-Driscoll School Project critics to be part of a productive process, to understand project construction facts and to recognize that the citizens on the building committee, who invest long hours in meetings, are responsible and competent. Citizens are welcome at these meetings and questions will be answered.

“All agree the Miller-Driscoll School needs to be renovated for the benefit of our youngest children. This is a major priority for the town as we continue to move forward on this project.”

Wish list

In addition to hoping for greater harmony on the Miller-Driscoll project, Mr. Brennan ticked off a few other items he would like to see in 2015.

One is greater contributions to the food pantry at Comstock Community Center. More than 50 families in Wilton rely on this social services asset.

He would also encourage additional contributions of park benches to the downtown area. These may be donated at a cost of $1,600 through the tree committee. For information, visit wiltonct.org and click on Boards and then Tree Committee.

Finally, he would welcome a sponsor for the municipal art project.