Tech infrastructure major focus of proposed Wilton budget

Photo of J.D. Freda
Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice presented the proposed 2022 fiscal year budget on March 1.

Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice presented the proposed 2022 fiscal year budget on March 1.

Patricia Gay/Hearst Connecticut

WILTON — With more people likely continuing to work from home even after the pandemic, the first selectman says ensuring the town has reliable cell and broadband service will be a key component to the 2022 fiscal year budget.

The $33.9 million budget request is a 3.12 percent or $1,0278,762 increase from the 2021 fiscal year budget.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said the proposed budget has three specific goals.

First, it aims to provide continued efforts to provide quality services at the lowest possible cost, she said. Next, it provides a continuation for efforts to ensure health and safety throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, it looked to increase investment across multiple areas of need.

Vanderslice outlined the budget breakdowns for investment into specific sectors. She detailed the need to invest in technological advancements for the town to provide better service to residents, investing in infrastructure and master planning — which is being discussed at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings regarding Wilton Town Center — and the need to explore new options for improving cell and broadband service in town.

“More and more has had to be done online,” Vanderslice said of residents’ transition to working and schooling from home during the pandemic. “There have been realizations that employees can work from home.”

She also pointed out companies are beginning to downsize their commercial footprint despite having to distance workers further apart in the workplace. The likely direction that businesses are headed, she said, will result in more residents opting to work from home for at least two to three business days each week. That will continue to increase the need for reliable broadband and cell service.

In fact, the selectmen plan to allot $100,000 toward consultants for broadband, cell and infrastructure upgrades in the town for the 2022 budget.

Wilton continues to work with the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which “has been pressing the state to take a more active role with internet and cable providers and expand broadband services,” according to a release by Vanderslice on Jan. 18.

Director of Land Use Management and Town Planner Michael Wrinn, Town Counsel Ira Bloom and Vanderslice also served last year as members of a WestCOG Task Force, which developed recommendations and practices for Connecticut communities to prepare for and facilitate 5G expansion.

The first selectwoman also said she has been meeting regularly with local first selectmen in surrounding communities to discuss the possibility of a municipal broadband system.

Other new initiatives during the proposed FY2022 budget include master planning, digitizing the Inlands Wetland and Watercourses mapping, the Norwalk River Valley Trail summer cleanup and further social services.

Drivers of increase from the last budget to the 2022 proposed budget include wage increases at 1.2 percent and “pandemic related spillover costs” at 0.30 percent.

As it stands, the operating capital request for FY2022 has increased significantly to $1.27 million. Vanderslice did, however, state this operating capital total can be forward for up to five years after the initial budget year it was introduced.

“That money is not always spent in the initial year budget,” she said.

Selectmen submitted questions on the budget. Vanderslice addressed Selectman Ross Tartell’s question if the budget went far enough to address the stark changes derived from the effects of the pandemic in 2020.

Vanderslice’s answer was centered around the budget’s focus on the town’s appeal.

“Businesses and residents have been attracted to Wilton because of strong schools, central location, nature environment, low traffic and laid-back nature,” Vanderslice stated in her response to Tartell before addressing the budget’s focus on shifting priority and capital to areas that will make a large influence on the lives of residents moving forward, including in technology and the shifting business world. “This was recognized as a high priority when we developed our Plan of Conservation and Development.”

When prompted about the feasibility of certain sustainability upgrades in the budget, including for the town to acquire hybrid and electric municipal vehicles, Department of Public Works Director Chis Burney said the immediate need wasn’t quite there yet.

“The number of miles our vehicles do is about 3,000 to 5,000 miles a year,” Burney said. “It just doesn’t make much sense right now.”

He did say the town’s DPW vehicles were “older,” however, the department cycles vehicles each year to not “put a stress on the budget.”

Selectwoman Deborah McFadden asked if there were any preliminary bonding items that Vanderslice could disclose. The first selectwoman said there are placeholders for an emergency radio system for $2.6 million and $1.6 million for ladder trucks for the fire department before she asked John Lynch, chief of police, and Jim Blanchfield, fire chief, to provide more context.

“We have a (communications) system that we maintain and update, but, the system we have now has reached its end,” Lynch said. The police chief explained the radio system is not reliable.

“We can either jump in with the state,” Lynch said before saying it would cost the town $4 million. “The next option would be upgrading the current system.”

The latter would cost roughly $2.6 million. Lynch said he would be open to hiring a consultant in an attempt to save the town money.

The police chief also clarified the project would not include the installation of any new towers in town, but rather the installation of antennas for emergency communications capabilities on existing towers.

Blanchfield added that half of the fire department’s mutual aid partners in surrounding towns were moving towards joining with the state communication system while the other half were upgrading themselves.

“The budget is an opus,” Tartell said, citing that he believed the 2022 proposed budget was more well thought-out than the previous year.