Empty seats at Wilton town budget hearing

After many went to the education budget hearing the night before, few attended the same for the town budget on March 29.
That said, people came, some offering support, others taking issue.

Supporters were pleased the Board of Selectmen was able to submit a budget of $32,414,880, a figure $17,314 less than what it budgeted for fiscal year 2016, marking a 0.05% decrease fiscal year over year.

“The Board of Selectmen, we are requesting a budget of $32.4 million — just over $31 million of operating expenses, and just under $1.4 million of capital,” First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice said.

“That’s $17,000 in total less than the fiscal year 2016 budget,” she said.

The operating capital requests selectmen presented are as follows.

  • Public Works — sweeper, dump truck — $394,000

  • Assessor — 2017 revaluation — $208,500

  • Police Department — vehicle, protective equipment, radar and medical equipment, and scheduling software — $187,190

  • Fire Department — radio equipment, defibrillators, vehicles, protective clothing rack, hazmat meter — $173,875

  • Transfer Station — backhoe — $125,000

  • Parks and Grounds — dump truck, utility cart, quad — $120,000

  • Information Systems — software — $66,290

  • Emergency Medical Services — vehicle, garage work — $54,834

  • Animal Control — vehicle — $25,000

  • Dispatch — radio — $22,000

  • Health Department — vehicle — $20,000

Added up, that’s $1,396,689.

“We try to spread these purchases out evenly, so that we’re not having a major impact one way or the other in the mill rate by loading them up in one year,” Vanderslice said, before adding, “We made a couple of changes this year.”

“We said that, other than the police cars and emergency vehicles, we were going to go for used vehicles,” Vanderslice said.

“After I gave my presentation to the selectmen, Chief Crosby the next morning said, ‘I think that you don’t even have to go for that used vehicle, because one of our police cars would work out perfectly for the Health Department,” she said.

“We won’t be spending that $20,000, so when Jeff [Rutishauser] tells me I have to cut the budget, there’s your first $20,000.”
Bonding questions
The selectmen recommended two bonding authorizations for vote at the Annual Town Meeting — $2.45 million in bonded capital.

One was the fifth year of the five-year road restoration project for $1,800,000.

“There are still a lot of roads that, even after this, are in pretty bad shape,” Vanderslice commented.

The other authorization put forward was $650,000 in bonds to replace the crumb rubber football field at Wilton High School with organic turf.

“We’re recommending a coconut husk infilled turf. It is better for the environment, and we also feel it’s safer for the students,” Vanderslice said. “In addition, we are adding concussion padding.

“Both projects will be bonded with a 10-year payback, not with our usual 20-year payback. The reason for that is because the turf field only lasts for 10 years, and the roads, typically — if we’re going to do it right — we can’t wait 20 years to repave.”

Vanderslice also said the town may not need bonds to replace the field in the future.

“We’re bonding the turf field now because when the field was put in 10 years ago, we never provided for its replacement,” she said.

“What is being proposed for the replacement 10 years from now is to create a sinking fund, half of which will be made up of revenue from renting out this field, and the other half will be through private donations.”

Several in favor of the budget the selectmen put forward spoke to offer their support.

Deborah McFadden said, “We need to keep in mind that if you compare what the actual tax bill is for the average person in, say, New Canaan, versus Wilton — although their real estate is higher, and they have double the grand list, their tax bill is the same as ours, when you look at the higher value of the house and the mill rate.”

“So I think we get a lot of value for our money, and as compared to other communities as well,” she said.

Some taxpayers even argued that the bonding authorization level being proposed for this year’s round of road restorations was too low.

Ken McCullen said, “I do support the capital budget. If anything, I think the amount being bonded for roads is too low — $1.8 million a year, we’re never going to get the roads done.

Tom Curtin said, “I don’t want to see taxes go up, I don’t want to see spending go up, but I agree, bond more money for the roads. You want to bring people into the town? Let them drive on a nice, smooth road.”

But Curtin also said he worried about a “spend-without-end mentality,” citing a wage increase for the first selectman’s position approved by selectmen Dec. 7, which Vanderslice has since donated back to the town.

“No sooner was Lynne voted into office than certain selectmen voted to give her an increase, which she declined — I think, appropriately — and my question is, how in the world can you give an increase to someone who hasn’t even started?”

Second Selectman Michael Kaelin responded directly to Curtin, saying, “The reason we voted to give Lynne that raise was not for Lynne; it was for the position of the first selectman … because the compensation for our first selectman is completely uncompetitive.”

“You could not hire someone to serve as our first selectman who is otherwise employed in another occupation,” Kaelin said. “Among other things, we do not provide any retirement benefits to the first selectman.”

Lastly Kaelin said, “But the other thing that everyone should be aware of: In the town of Wilton, you’re really getting two for the price of one. … Towns like New Canaan and Darien, they also have a town manager, who makes more than the first selectman does.”

Resident Moses Alexander held that “growing the grand list is not keeping the budget in check.”

“There was a period … when the grand list was growing, and it was easy to grow the budgets, because it wasn’t painful; there weren’t tax increases,” Alexander said.

“Well, here we are now, and if there was a mistake, it was then — it was growing the budgets because the grand list was growing, and there should have been the same scrutiny that’s going on now, when the grand list isn’t growing, and we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now,” he said.

Alex Ruskewich said, “Overall, I think what has been done is significantly better than what we’ve had in the past.”

Ruskewich did have some concerns, however, one of which was with the thinking behind forecasting any reduction in capital spending.

“Jeff, you mentioned that the capital plan would start going down. I have never seen [the capital plan] go down in this town. I’ve seen, when it starts to go down, there’s another project that comes in,” Ruskewich said.

“I’m not extremely optimistic that we’re going to have a reduction in the debt service as we go along in that,” he said.

Ed Papp said he knew places where cuts could be made.

“I am of the firm opinion that there’s quite a bit of fat in the Board of Selectmen’s budget, and I think you’ve identified some of it, and I think you’ll find the rest of it in time,” Papp said.

He pointed to past projects he said were originally budgeted for but ultimately bonded out, and argued that police hired as temps during the Route 7 expansion should be released.

Papp also spoke of his concern for the tax rate here, as did several others.

“Our taxes are now twice what they had been, in real terms. … We’re double, and services haven’t changed. I think we should postpone as many of the capital projects, and even the purchase of these new trucks, until we can start paying down some of our debt,” he said.

Stephen Hudspeth spoke after Papp and countered his recommendation to let police officers go, saying, “It’s not an area anybody should be talking about cutting back.”

The Annual Town Meeting to discuss the budget will take place on Tuesday, May 3, 7:30 p.m., at Middlebrook School, with voting following the meeting. Residents may also take part in the adjourned vote on Saturday, May 7, from 9 to 6 at the Clune Center.