First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice attended last night’s (April 11) Board of Finance (BOF) meeting to review what the Board of Selectmen (BOS) has decided to present to voters as bonding referendum at the May 2 Annual Town Meeting (ATM).
By The Numbers
Vanderslice presented several slides on Wilton’s five-year capital plan, forecasted borrowing and debt service.
The presentation began with actual and forecasted debt levels from FY’16 to FY’28. Even with some additional new debt from the new police headquarters project approved last year, Wilton’s outstanding debt levels each year will be relatively flat over the next few years — and that is assuming all of the roughly $4.1 million in new bonding proposals are approved.
Vanderslice noted the debt level increase seen in FY’15 to FY’18 included $36 million for the renovations at Miller Driscoll School and $9.9 million for Comstock Community Center. FY’23 and FY’24 will include $10 million and $6.4 million, respectively, in borrowing for the new police headquarters.
Proposed new borrowing over the next few years — totaling over $42 million — is primarily for school buildings, ongoing road paving and other infrastructure.
“The schools are up there on the top,” Vanderslice told the BOF. “The [proposed new] turf field is the only new amenity. Everything else is infrastructure that already exists that needs to be upgraded [or] replaced.”
As Vanderslice alerted the BOF last July, debt service costs will begin rising in FY’24 after three years of relatively low levels. The rise in debt service cost is just one of the factors that posed a challenge for the BOF to manage the projected mill rate increase for next year.
“Debt service is going up even though debt levels are fairly level,” Vanderslice explained. “The debt we’re paying down is all at a lower interest rate than what we expect to borrow.”
Voters will see five referendum at the Annual Town Meeting which they can approve or reject for new borrowing, totaling $4,067,000 for FY’24. Anticipated spending is higher going forward — ranging from $7.7 million to $8.4 million each year from FY’25-’28.
BOF Takes Closer Look At Turf
Vanderslice spent time reviewing the proposal to build a third turf field at Allen’s Meadow, which the BOS had finalized the previous evening.
The project has received significant attention from the public. At upwards of $1.9 million in costs to the town — not including the seasonal bubble, which WARF would be responsible for — it accounts for nearly half of the proposed new bonding for next year.
Although the BOF has the discretion whether or not to issue an objection to any bonding proposal, it did not exercise the option to do so.
Board member Sandy Arkell did make a motion to object to the turf proposal, but it was not seconded.
Arkell explained the conflict she saw for the BOF.
“I get that publicly there’s a lot of support for it,” she said. “[But] it seems like there’s still a lot of uncertainty in terms of timing of funding, exploration of the bubble… it seems like there should be a more definitive timeline and more guarantee on the funding from WARF.”
“The optics on this seems bizarre to me,” Arkell continued. “We cut school funding, but we’d be ok with $2 million advancing the funding of a turf field? This is an amenity, it seems like a luxury… It feels like more of a want than a need.”
“It is going increase our debt service. We just talked right here about all the pressure that’s in front of us in future years. I think the voters should consider that when they go to the polls,” Arkell added.
BOF Vice Chair Stewart Koenigsberg said he agreed with Arkell’s comments.
“I had the same reaction as [Arkell] did,” Koenigsberg said. “I know there’s a lot of desire to have [a new turf] but there’s also a lot of desire to have a larger BOE budget.”
“I had the same visceral reaction, that we’re talking about a lot of bonding for a lot of things. You need a fire truck. If you have roads you’re required to repair, there’s not much of a choice on something like that,” Koenigsberg said.
“I do have the concern that we are going to see increasing expense loads in future years, arising from a variety of areas,” he reiterated. “We’re looking at a lot of borrowing. I realize it’s not incremental to what we’ve had in the past, but it’s still going to be significant.”
Rich Santosky had a different view of the turf field — not as an amenity but more akin to educational spending in the sense that “team sport is part of your education.”
“It isn’t just an amenity, it’s an extension of or similar to funding the schools. It’s important to the development of a child just like math and reading and social studies,” Santosky said.
Matt Raimondi said he viewed the project as an infrastructure investment which also had a “qualitative benefit” as a desired amenity.
BOF Chair Michael Kaelin also seemed to support it.
“It’s the town’s responsibility to provide safe playing fields for the kids. This seems like a pretty efficient and effective way to provide a playing field. It’s not only safer but they can use it a lot more. Given the economics of a grass field you have to maintain and how much more use it will get, there’s a pretty good argument for it. We really can let the voters decide. I don’t have an objection to it.”
However, Kaelin wants voters to have their eyes open.
“Our [BOF] responsibility is to raise the issues that Stewart [Koenigsberg] and Sandy [Arkell] raised, so when voters go to vote, they realize we have all these headwinds coming in the future, we have all these expenses, and [they] will be paying for it.”
Building on Kaelin’s point, Chris Stroup said he’d like to see efforts to ensure voters “truly understand what it means” in terms of the financial and tax impact of the bonding initiatives like the turf. Vanderslice and Kaelin agreed the presentations at the Annual Town meeting could help provide those insights.
“If there was tension this year in the discussion about budgets, and there was tension last year, I think there probably will be at least that degree of tension, if not more, next year,” Stroup said. “So as people are signing up for these projects, they should understand there’s going to be a fair degree of tension around normal operating budgets for the next several years.”
That Miller Driscoll boondoggle debt still stands out like a sore thumb! Why spend 10 million when 40 million can be wasted?! The Boards didn’t listen then either.
“The optics on this seems bizarre to me,” Arkell continued. “We cut school funding, but we’d be ok with $2 million advancing the funding of a turf field? This is an amenity, it seems like a luxury… It feels like more of a want than a need.” Agree say I.
Boston bans artificial turf in parks due to toxic forever chemicals.
In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, city officials thought they had ordered a PFAS-free artificial turf field, but later testing revealed that it contained high levels of the chemicals. That’s some “Amenity” the BOS are proposing for 2 million plus!
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