Wilton first selectwoman tackles fiscal challenges
WILTON — Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has plunged into her second term in office, juggling a number of priorities.
One of her biggest is developing the FY 2021 town budget.
Her goal, she told The Bulletin, is to develop an efficient budget that supports the needs of the town, while meeting expectations as to levels of service at an acceptable cost to the taxpayers.
“We have had an average budget increase, in the four budgets I’ve presented, under 0.9 percent,” she said.
Last year, the selectmen requested a 0.92-percent budget increase, but the finance board kept both the town and school budgets flat, to a zero increase.
To achieve previous budgets under one percent, Vanderslice focused on generating cost savings from staff vacancies, consolidation of jobs, and increased use of technology.
However, the town faces two different challenges in the FY 2021 budget — rising healthcare costs and rising waste management costs.
“Healthcare costs are expected to rise eight percent and that is the focus with this year’s budget,” Vanderslice said. “To achieve lower costs will involve union negotiations.”
There are also rising costs at the transfer station. “The town now has to pay for recycling to be disposed. The transfer station has been running at a $300,000 loss and is expected to go up to $400,000 unless some changes are made,” she said.
To look at possible solutions, WestCOG, the town’s regional planning agency, has applied for a grant for Wilton and neighboring Weston for a transfer station study. “I hope we will not have to continue the transfer station subsidy,” Vanderslice said.
Vanderslice consistently hears from residents that their taxes are too high.
“We have permanently eliminated costs on the town side, but you cannot keep taxes flat, or slow growth, or cut taxes through just reducing costs, so we have to have grand list growth,” she said.
The town’s residential grand list has declined, and with the next revaluation set for 2021, Vanderslice is concerned about offsetting the residential decline with commercial development.
She pointed out some areas of current and potential grand list commercial growth.
Expansion projects at the ASML semiconductor facility have sparked some growth. Sunrise Senior Living recently opened a facility at 211 Danbury Road. There is continued progress for Wilton Heights, a mixed residential and retail development planned at 300 Danbury Road. There are also plans for a three-building project at 198-200 Danbury Road, the site of the former Sheridan Interiors business.
However, a senior housing plan for 2 Pimpewaug Road (the Brightview project) which was before the Planning and Zoning Commission, was withdrawn in December when the plan faced public opposition and concerns from the commission about density.
“Wilton is aging, Fairfield County is aging and the country is aging, so there is a need for this kind of housing,” Vanderslice said. She knew there were issues with the project, but would have liked to have seen the issues addressed before the plan was withdrawn.
“The next project was supposed to be Brightview, so we don’t have that ‘next project.’ I’m thinking, what will be that next project — the project that we want,” she said.
Vanderslice has concerns about property development since the town’s moratorium on the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute expired at the end of 2019.
Affordable housing projects under 8-30g can now be proposed for any residential property, including 2 Pimpewaug Road which is available once again. “Are we going to see a large 8-30g project there?” she said.
“Wilton doesn’t have an issue with an affordable element of a project. Wilton has always required it. We were way ahead of the state,” she said. “What we would object to is a seven-story apartment building right up against a residential neighborhood. That’s why four years ago, when I came into office, I was looking for projects to go on these larger properties, to get them filled up before dealing with the removal of the moratorium,” she said.
Another property to keep an eye on for future development, Vanderslice said, is a 38-acre tract of land on Belden Hill Road. The property is occupied by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The nursing home for the sisters closed in September, leaving about 85 sisters remaining on the property.
She would also like to advance economic development in Wilton Center. She encourages master planning around the pedestrian bridge, the train station, Station Road and surrounding Danbury Road to attract more residents.
Vanderslice is also monitoring the plan to construct a new police station.
She said it is more difficult to get community support for a police station than it is for something like a school, where children are occupying the building.
There are a number of problems with the current police building, which was built in 1974. The building is overcrowded, isn’t insulated, was not built for technology, and is not up to building code in a number of areas.
Originally projected to cost $16 million, the Board of Selectmen asked that the project be pared down to the $13-14-million range.
“The project needs town meeting approval. We are hoping to make it to the town meeting in May, otherwise it will have to wait until next year,” she said.
Cell phone service
There may be some relief for residents complaining about poor cell phone service in the northern area of Wilton.
There is an application before the CT Siting Council, Vanderslice said, by a resident in New Canaan near St. Luke’s School, for construction of a cell tower. She said that tower may help with service in the Ridgefield Road area of Wilton. She encourages residents who support the tower to contact the siting council and let it know.
In the meantime, she is planning to get a cell coverage map of the town, to show the level of cell service throughout Wilton, including where the towers are located for each carrier.
She is also keeping track of 5G high-speed wireless service, which has not yet made its way into Wilton. She is on a WestCOG task force that is reviewing its progress regionally, she said.
Norwalk River Valley Trail
Vanderslice is working with the state on an impasse with construction on the Norwalk River Valley Trail (NRVT).
Work on a portion of the nature trail connecting Wilton to Norwalk was suspended last October due to a condition imposed by the state forcing the municipalities to assume liability for pre-existing conditions for the land within each town. This would include liability for the cleanup of any existing hazardous materials, which could be very costly.
“We are working with WestCOG for a legislative solution. This is beyond frustrating,” Vanderslice said. “The NRVT is a major asset.”