Library dominates town budget meeting

Board of Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice listen to Pat Hessel speak in favor of funding for Wilton Library.
Board of Finance Chairman Jeff Rutishauser and First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice listen to Pat Hessel speak in favor of funding for Wilton Library.

A discussion over funding Wilton Library dominated the public comment period of a sparsely attended Board of Finance public hearing Tuesday evening, March 27. The hearing held at Middlebrook School auditorium, to air the Board of Selectmen’s budget, drew fewer than a dozen attendees beyond a group there specifically to support the library.

Board of Finance chair Jeff Rutishauser gave an overview of the town’s financial condition, which is solid. However there is a gap of $2.3 million required by the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen’s budgets beyond current tax collections. That must be made up either through a tax increase or budget decreases.

The Board of Education budget request is up 2.24% over the current year. (See story on page 1A.) First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice presented the Board of Selectmen’s budget of $33,501,999, an increase of 0.88% over the current year. She emphasized the board has presented spending plans that have come under budget over the last three years:

  • $1 million under budget in FY 2016.

  • $450,000 under budget in FY 2017

  • $500,000 forecasted to be under budget for FY 2018.

She also indicated that recovery from the recession of 2007 has been slow. Earnings for Wilton residents with an adjusted gross income of less than $200,000 have increased only by 1.1%. This group accounts for more than half of taxpayers, she said.

Earnings for those with an adjusted gross income greater than $200,000 are down 16.4% as compared to 2007. Total adjusted gross income in the town is down by more than $200 million as compared to 2007.

In attempting to keep the budget in check in the face of rising salaries and healthcare costs, the municipal workforce has been reduced by four positions. The elimination of one police officer mid-year will add an additional half-position.

To view Vanderslice's complete presentation:

Presentation-BOF Budget Hearing-3-27-18.pdf

Vanderslice also reviewed library funding, saying the town is trying creative ways to meet funding challenges. The town funds 75% of the library’s operating costs through an annual grant. It’s remaining budget is raised through contributions.

The grant is $2.778 million. Because of changes in the federal tax law that caps property tax deductions, the board is encouraging residents to make charitable contributions to the library to reduce the amount that must be paid through taxes.

The town came up with the concept of a $25,000 challenge grant. This budget keeps the grant to the library flat. If the library can raise $25,000 — beyond what it already raises — the town will match it.

Rob Sanders, selectmen’s representative to the library board, was skeptical of the challenge grant idea. With the tax changes, he said, “we don’t understand the impact on volunteer organizations and volunteer giving.”

“As citizens in town we all benefit from the library,” he continued. “There is no fairer method of supporting the library than through the tax base. It means that every citizen whose paying taxes pays a little slice — a relatively small amount — toward support of this institution which is probably the primary source of information, one of the most broad-based institution in town for just the cohesiveness of the town.”

The library has taken measures to control costs, he said, including adding solar panels that result in $17,000 savings per year, changed lights to LEDs for 30% savings, switched HVAC and printing contractors, changed parking lot lights, selling valuable books in different ways and reducing headcount.

Michelle Klink, president of the Wilton Library Board of Trustees, said the additional $50,000 requested that would be used for salary and healthcare increases. The library already raises more than $750,000 in contributions, she said. Because the library operates on a cash basis, it would not be able to include future challenge grant money and thus would have to operate at a deficit. This would force the library to take several cost-cutting measures such as closing on Sundays, perhaps closing earlier during the week, or not provide extra hours during exam week. Such closures would affect revenue generation from things like room rentals.

Instead, she asked the Board of Selectmen to fully fund the library and let it partner with them in educating the public on the need and benefits of making charitable donations.

Nick Davatzes and Tom Curtin brought up the fact that real estate agents use the library, along with the schools, as a selling point for the town.

Pat Hessel spoke passionately about the library, saying it was the reason she came to town in 1970. She spoke to the librarian Yvonne Given who told her about the town. “It wasn’t just the schools, it wasn’t Kiwanis Park with the great big pond, it wasn’t Merwin Meadows, it wasn’t just the churches, but it was the town itself. … it was a community.” She found out about all of that from the librarian. “She also told me about some of the patrons she knew by name. She knew the father, the son, and maybe even the grandfather. She knew Wilton, she made it come alive for me. And that was the librarian.” She added she was very grateful for the elderly tax relief, saying, “I will take that and I will put it toward my library.” And maybe, she said, “more people will come to wilton not because of the taxes, but our services, our schools and the people who live here and it’s reflected in the library.”

Responding to a number of people who questioned the Board of Selectmen’s support of the library, Selectman Michael Kaelin stood to speak.

“The reason I feel compelled to speak is I think the discussion about the library is an illustration of what’s wrong with the way we debate issues today,” he said. “The way this issue has been framed is either we’re in favor of the library or not in favor of the library. And if we’re in favor of the library we’ll give them the $50,000 and if we’re against the library we’ll take the $50,000 away from them. … Nobody is a bigger supporter or more in favor of the library than I am,” said Kaelin, a former president of the library association, who has volunteered many items.

“I’m not just in favor of the library,” he said, “but I’m in favor of every citizen in this town. The reality that we face in the town and the state is we want more than we are willing to pay for.”

“If we want to succeed and we want to flourish, we’re going to have to do something differently.” In 2018 there will be no limit on charitable deductions but there will be on state and local taxes.

He said having a $25,000 challenge will not put the library at risk. “What I was hoping to accomplish by making this proposal was to get the library and get everybody in town to think about things to try to do things differently so we get a different outcome. … why can’t we innovate, why can’t we experiment and why can’t we work together instead of making it you’re either for the library or against the library because if you do that that’s the surest way to turn people against the library.”