Wilton Annual Town Meeting: Discussion leads to voting

The Wilton budget for fiscal year 2013-14 is in the hands of the voters, following the annual Town Meeting at Middlebrook School on Tuesday night.

The evening was moderated by former First Selectman Bob Russell, so chosen by a motion from the audience. Town attorney Ken Bernhard and town clerk Bettye Ragognetti made the appropriate legal remarks before Board of Finance Chairman Warren Serenbetz opened the first of three budget presentations.

Mr. Serenbetz was followed by First Selectman Bill Brennan and Board of Education Chair Bruce Likly in giving each budget a final short review for the public.

“I respectfully ask that Wilton citizens support this budget and the proposed critically important capital projects,” Mr. Brennan said.

Mr. Likly used his speech as an opportunity to stress how the Board of Education had to reduce its budget. These reductions included conversations about reducing and eliminating bus routes, personnel, and sports, including the hockey team. Ultimately, the biggest point was the introduction of the “pay to participate” program that will offset costs to avoid any eliminations.

“But there are some positive notes to close on,” said Mr. Likly. “With the implementation of participation fees, an allocation of $350,000 of savings achieved from the Wilton High School renovation is going to go into non-recurring site work.” He added that the Board of Finance was instrumental in noting that.

“This budget will enable the town to meet the Board of Finance’s 1.75% mill rate target,” he added. “With this budget, most citizens will see little or no change in their property taxes next year. This budget enables Wilton to begin to close the property tax gap that we have with our surrounding towns.”

With a slight change to the agenda, the capital projects were presented before comments from the public. Selectmen Richard Dubow, Ted Hoffstatter and James Saxe took turns presenting the three bonding questions that will bring renovations and replacement of the boiler at Comstock Community Center, replace the boiler at Gilbert & Bennett Cultural Community Center, and convert boilers to natural gas at Wilton High School, Cider Mill School, and Middlebrook School.

Finally the public had a chance to speak.

Grant Curtis had some of the strongest language for the boards.

“I do not support this budget,” he began. “I believe that over the 12 years I’ve lived in this town, you’ve increased the budget by 100%. My taxes were at $6,000. They’re at $12,000 in 12 years. I believe that you spend like Washington, you borrow like Washington and that we need to pull our heels back and do the right thing for the people of this town.

“There are people in this town that I live around that are moving out of this area or downsizing because of your tax rates.”

Gary Gerard prompted Mr. Brennan to return to the podium regarding economic development. Mr. Gerard challenged the first selectman specifically on a proposed hotel that was to be built at i.park on the Wilton/Norwalk town line.

“The project with that hotel chain basically dried up,” Mr. Brennan said. “However, it’s not over, because we are very supportive of getting a hotel into Wilton. Very shortly, within the next few days, we will be announcing a major company that will be coming into Wilton, originally founded in Wilton. It’s coming back in with 160 employees with an objective of doubling that in five years.”

Perhaps the most contentious point was the topic of the participation fees.

“Wilton has always had a heart,” said Ross Tartell. “It’s always had a soul. When those families can’t afford to join a club or play a sport, there’s probably a way that they get helped out. But there’s a philosophical approach to all of this. To make a special dispensation to help someone rather than take the stance that it should be open to all without reservation is the wrong stance to take.

“Think about the activity fees. That’s one of the things that used to differentiate us from everybody else, and it doesn’t anymore.”

Longtime Wiltonian Marilyn Gould said the meeting ended an era for her.

“After 37 consecutive annual meetings, this will be my last one because I’m one of those people who must move out of town because I cannot afford the property taxes,” she said before placing questions to Mr. Brennan, including when the natural gas line would be installed.

“I wish I knew,” said Mr. Brennan with emphasis. “The program with Yankee Gas has been a strategic initiative of this board.”

He outlined how Yankee Gas came to the town and said the project could not move forward without a $1.7 million “major contribution,” which eventually dropped to $900,000.

“We’re dealing with a very big utility that has some peculiar ways that they function,” he said.

He further said that legislators in Hartford will help guide the future of the program.

“We’re talking with Yankee Gas on a regular basis, and they’re an extremely difficult company to work with.”

However, he said, if all goes well, the potential exists for the project to begin in July.

“Getting an agreement with Yankee Gas will be an arduous task,” he added.

The final speaker of the night, Lori McCabe, spoke in favor of the budget.

“Our kids are our future. If we continue to cut, we won’t continue to have the wonderful school system that we have. Mark my words, when my kids are grown, I’ll continue to support our schools because we need to give back.”

Voting began immediately after at Middlebrook School. According to the registrars of voters, 124 people cast their ballots. The vote continues on Saturday from 8 to 6 at the Clune Center at Wilton High School.

Absentee ballots will be available in person from the town clerk at the town hall until May 10.