In an atmosphere that was cordial, first selectman candidates Republican Lynne Vanderslice and Democrat Deborah McFadden presented their vision for Wilton and fielded questions from an audience that numbered about 50 Thursday evening, Oct. 1, at Cannon Grange Hall.
McFadden described herself as a problem solver and trouble shooter who sees Wilton’s greatest asset as its people. Married to a senior [Jack McFadden] and with a child in high school, she said, “I think I have a handle on what’s facing people.”
Vanderslice played up her ability to think outside the box, multi-task, and plan for the future. “We always have to think about the future,” she said. “What are the unknowns?”
She reviewed her corporate career during which she managed a department of 150 people at Coca-Cola — about the size of the town workforce, she said — and her nonprofit work with A Better Chance, the Wilton Playshop, and her government work on the Board of Finance.
Both women had taxes at the top of their list of main concerns and both agreed the way to keep a handle on them was by:
• Reducing costs;
• Increasing the grand list;
• Managing debt.
Both also discussed the need to develop a “Wilton brand.”
“Who is Wilton? Who do we want to be and then we need to make it happen,” McFadden said.
Vanderslice hit on the need to reach out to the business community, “to encourage investment in businesses, and also facilitate it.”
This led into a question from Don Sauvigné, who asked how each would work to increase business in Wilton when the state is perceived as being unfriendly to business.
“The Route 7 corridor … that is very attractive to national corporations,” Vanderslice said, speaking primarily of the stretch south of Wolfpit Road. “They don’t have difficulty filling those buildings.”
Noting smaller businesses are along the northern stretch of Route 7, she said, “we really need to appeal to two types of businesses.
“We need to get out there and say we’re business friendly and then be business friendly.”
As an example of that she mentioned the recent action by the Planning & Zoning Commission to amend the bulk density regulations that allow a more parking on commercial property. This, she said, will allow companies to expand and bring in more employees.
McFadden pointed out business and residential housing are two of the components of the grand list.
“What we need to do as a community is bring all the stakeholders together … and everybody sit down at the table and really come up with a clear vision of what we want this community to look at.”
“If we identify specific property locations where we would like to see specific things happen I think it would be appropriate for the town to take the lead, if there are zoning changes that are required, so that we could position properties to be developed in a way that is consistent with our plan of what we would like to do. And so I think it’s important for us to be pro-active.”
Both candidates brought up the issue of housing.
“One of the sectors that’s missing in this community is where do you go if you want to step down from your single-family house and you’re not ready to go to Wilton Commons and Ogden House, where do you live in between?” McFadden said. “People have shared with me that that segment of our housing stock is missing.”
She added that as the town progresses it is important to “recognize our historic heritage and we are careful and do it in a way that we protect our open spaces and our environment and the quality we have in this community.”
Moses Alexander asked a question about bonding capital projects. In particular he questioned the wisdom of bonding road work, as the five-year road restoration program does. This was proposed during the recession when operating costs for road work were continually cut during budget negotiations.
Both candidates said they favor putting road maintenance back in the operating budget.
McFadden mentioned the town’s AAA credit rating which has allowed very low bonding rates over the past few years. “Whatever we do going forward, we have to protect that,” she said.
Vanderslice said she opposed the bonding of the road maintenance.
“One of my issues of bonding from day one on the Board of Finance is we were typically bonding 15 years and now we’re bonding 20 years.” In the case of the roads, each road has a life of eight to 15 years, “and yet we put in 20-year bonding” which means “if we continue to bond, we’ll bond it again before we’ve paid off the first paving of roads.”
There was a question about presenting budgets as budget-to-budget as opposed to budget-to-actual or actual-to-actual. Would the candidates commit that in the future you will show us actual amounts? They were also asked to address why surpluses are kept rather than returned to taxpayers.
“I absolutely agree with you,” Vanderslice said, noting this year the Board of Selectmen budget will come in $700,000 under budget, and when a budget consistently comes in under budget, there “is no validity” in making budget-to-budget comparisons.
She also said before she joined the Board of Finance, there was no forecasting.
“I changed that and developed a model that we use every year now on the Board of Finance so we’re looking at numbers on a multi-year basis. You have to plan. As first selectman you’ll see that on a regular basis you’ll see regular forecasts. We’re on a five-year capital plan, I think we should go to 10 years.”
McFadden attributed some of this year’s surplus to unanticipated revenue, particularly from FEMA and the state. Using surpluses in the next budget cycle could help reduce any tax increases.
She also agreed it is important to look at actual budgets, rather than proposed budget-to-budget.
Vanderslice added that “if you take everything, we’re favorable about $3.5 million for the year just ended. And if you go back previous years you’re looking at numbers even higher. … revenues are favorable by well over $1 million. … we regularly budget, in case we miss it, 1% of operating budget and that’s about $1 million. So if we’re really doing good budgeting, you’d expect we’d come in about $1 million favorable all around. But the fact that we are coming in so much higher in our favorability … that’s great that we have $3.5 million more, but that means we taxed people $3.5 million that we didn’t have to tax people.”
Both also agreed zero-based budgeting was a good idea, although it might take more than a year to implement.
In answer to a question on where they would make any budget cuts, Vanderslice said opportunities to share some resources with other towns should be explored. “I think we have to look at every single area,” she said, adding Weston, Redding and Ridgefield are in similar situations. “I ran a large department, I had to deal with those types of things … ABC was on a shoestring when I was there.”
She also said the town can share functions, where there is duplication, with the Board of Education.
“I think there can be some economies within the town within departments, but also between the town and the schools,” McFadden said, adding some have already been implemented, and some are underway. “Leveraging opportunities with the state with all types of grants, there’s all types of things we can explore. I think you have to look outside the box. I think there are situations where you consistently look at things the same way.” A new chief financial officer, she said, will look at things with a new set of eyes.
“I want to sit down with the new CFO and really look at everything nuts to bolts. There are no sacred cows in this town. Let’s look at everything.”
Several people brought up Wilton’s abysmal voting participation for budgets and asked what can be done about it. They also asked about the 15% rule that stipulates the budget passes, no matter the yes or no vote, if voter turnout is less than 15%.
Both candidates were concerned and both stressed the need for greater outreach before the Annual Town Meeting and budget vote.
Both disapproved of the 15% threshold and promised to convene a Charter review, which is the only way to change that rule.
“I would love to have more people engaged, but I think we should be true to who we are and allow the vote to go through as it is,” Vanderslice said.
“I do believe if people felt the cap was gone and they knew their vote was meaningful no matter how many people turned out, you would see more people voting. I’ve heard from people, ‘it’s going to pass anyway, why should I vote?’”
Both candidates expressed support for the school district in the face of poor standardized test scores and both support the renovation work at Miller-Driscoll.
Information: WiltonForDeb.org; lynnevanderslice.org.