Wilton boards are tasked to embrace economic development
WILTON — “Economic development is the responsibility of everybody at this table.”
That was the message First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice delivered at a tri-board meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Board of Education on Jan. 21.
The meeting focused on the importance of encouraging economic development in order to grow Wilton’s grand list.
“If we are going to be recommending the spending of money, and assuming some economic development is going to happen to support that funding, then everybody has to take some ownership for that and be proactive. We want to make sure we are supporting local businesses,” she said.
She encouraged board members to attend Planning and Zoning meetings when there are applications before it that could have an economic impact on the town.
She referred to the Brightview senior living project proposed for Pimpewaug Road, which was recently withdrawn by the applicant amid public opposition and what was perceived as negative comments from P&Z commissioners. She said the Brightview project could have netted the town around $750,000 a year in property taxes.
For years, she said, Wilton had a reputation of being “anti-development,” but it has since tried to spread the word that it supports economic development.
“We have to do a better job, attracting these people,” said finance board chairman and real estate professional Jeff Rutishauser, referring to senior-living communities. “They are the ones that provide tax revenue far in excess of the services that they draw. Those are the ones that will come and help us offload some of the tax burden from the residential sector,” he said.
“We’re lucky that about 20 percent of our grand list is commercial,” Vanderslice said. “That’s a lot of tax dollars they pay, that residents don’t have to pay.”
There are a number of potential economic development projects in the pipeline, according to Vanderslice.
She said she expects to see some small-scale 8-30g affordable housing applications.
She is also expecting to see the redevelopment of some existing corporate office space in town to mixed use.
And, although Brightview is no longer under consideration, there is high demand for senior living communities and there is interest by other developers, she said.
The boards reviewed a 20-year perspective of Wilton’s demographics and economics.
In the years leading up to the recession in 2009, the actual tax levy (funds raised through taxes) grew at a high rate, according to the perspective. The impact was somewhat offset by significant grand list growth.
The tax levy grew 79 percent or an average of 9.9 percent per year from FY2001 through FY2009. While the grand list for that time period grew 140 percent.
Post recession, the town responded by scaling back the rate of growth of the tax levy.
From FY2010 through FY 2020, Wilton experienced:
Reduced growth rates in school budgets.
Reduced growth rates in town budgets and a downsizing of town government.
Increase in debt service to fund projects, including Miller-Driscoll School, Comstock Community Center and road paving.
Losses in state grants for education and municipal reimbursements.
A net reduction of 15.5 percent in the grand list due primarily to declining values for residential properties and corporate office buildings.
The boards reviewed trends from 2009 that are still continuing and need to be addressed:
Collective earnings continue to lag pre-recession earnings and recently declined from 2014 to 2017.
Total population has begun to decline.
Population continues to age.
Prices for high valued and larger homes continue to decline, some down up to 60 percent.
FY2021 grand list growth will be stronger, but the next revaluation is only two years away with continued concerns about single-family home and corporate office building values.
Migration out of Fairfield County has exceeded migration in. Income leaving exceeded income coming in.
“These issues are not limited to Wilton,” Vanderslice said.
Gauging the public’s opinion about taxes, there was limited support by Wilton residents for tax increases, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the finance board. Forty-five percent of respondents said they were opposed to a 1-percent tax increase, while 58 percent said they were opposed to a 2-percent tax increase.
In view of the survey results, Vanderslice said, the question was how the boards could work together to meet residents’ expectations “while making sure we are properly funding the services we have to provide.”
Rutishauser said that in the past five years, Wilton’s mill rate increase has been between 1.2 and 2 percent. “Anytime the budget as submitted was above that, we cut the budget to get down to that … If we’ve got budgets that roll into 2 percent or greater, just look at the survey and you start to lose support real fast in the town,” he said.
He said the housing market is still not that strong and with Wilton competing with neighboring towns, it was important to stay competitive by holding taxes down. He said Wilton is in the mid-range of tax increases in the area. “We need to stay at 1.6 or 1.8 percent. There is a challenge to get there, but that is where townspeople expect us to be when we are done with our mill rate discussions,” he said.
“If you want to drive up your grand list, you need to do it with a Brightview-type, assisted-living facility,” Vanderslice said. “Towns are hungry for this type of development, those are big drivers, those kinds of things.”
She said it was also important to look at the town’s infrastructure needs such as municipal buildings, roofs at the schools, and bridges when talking about budgetary concerns.
She said the town is putting a capital plan together that is “going to be larger than we’d like to see, but we have to do it.” She said projects in the plan will increase the town’s debt service.
“The police station was necessary 20 years ago and is still just as necessary now,” said Rutishauser.
The boards also discussed the schools and how there is expected to be continuing declining enrollment over the next five years.
There was also concern about the effect of revaluation and how it impacts property values and taxes.
A key takeaway from the tri-board meeting Vanderslice concluded, was the need to be more active in economic development and supporting projects. “We all need to understand it is very different when a project is proposed three miles from our house than right next door to our house. Everybody is our neighbor,” she said.
She said the boards also agreed on the importance of the schools for attracting people to Wilton, and that investment in infrastructure is a shared value.