Attendance Sparse at Drama-Free Annual Town Meeting; Budget Goes to Voters as Proposed by Town Officials

Attendance was sparse at the 2022 Annual Town Meeting. This was the crowd as the meeting began; it reached a peak of about 150 people. (photo: GOOD Morning Wilton)

Interest in Wilton’s Annual Town Meetings waxes and wanes. Each year, town officials try to predict how many people will turn out for the once-a-year budget setting meeting and vote. The 2022 Annual Town Meeting was a waning year — attendance at the Tuesday evening, May 3 ATM was sparse. At best count, there were about 150 people sprinkled throughout the audience seats at the Clune Auditorium.

Perhaps Wilton’s New England-style town meeting form of government is anachronistic — it better suited an agrarian demographic that allowed each property owner to gather in a room in the evening after farm work was done, or single-income families who had the luxury and habit of sending one adult to the meeting while the other stayed home with the kids — and now it’s not something residents can easily fit into a busier work-life schedule.

Perhaps residents get more information during the months-long process leading up to the ATM with live coverage (Zoom, GMW, online updates and social media) or they feel the process has already worked itself out. Perhaps people watched from home on Zoom, as they’re now accustomed to doing with municipal meetings — town officials told GOOD Morning Wilton that 78 viewers watched remotely. Perhaps it’s just not on their radar.

Whatever the reason, it was a pretty straightforward, drama-free evening. Officials ran through their budget presentations with no surprises, as the process had been set in the weeks leading up to the meeting.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice explained her cost-cutting and savings-oriented approach to the Board of Selectmen‘s budget for the town; Board of Education Chair Deborah Low did the same on the school budget side. Their presentations were abbreviated versions of presentations they’ve made several times in the last few weeks — at the public hearings and Board of Finance meetings.

Vanderslice also ran through the six bonding referendum questions, spending the bulk of that agenda item covering the $16.4 million new police station request, complete with presentations from the Police Building Committee Co-Chair Dave Waters and Tecton Architects’ Rebecca Hopkins. In a sign of likely foreshadowing that the long-overdo new headquarters is on track to get voter approval, the presentations got a round of applause, perhaps the most rousing of the night.

In the clearest sign of all, there were no motions from the floor to reduce any part of the proposed budget. Aside from the aberrations of the last two COVID-era budget meetings, a floor motion-less meeting hasn’t happened since 2014 (another sparsely attended year).

Moreover, during public comment periods, not a single speaker suggested that the proposed spending amounts were too high. No one criticized town officials for spending in some areas over others; in fact, officials — almost all of whom are volunteers — were praised for their fiscal responsibility and dedication of time to the town.

So the budgets as proposed are now up for final approval by the town voters:

  • A FY’23 operating budget of $130,942,900 to run the town and the schools for FY2023. That’s a 1.67% increase ($2.2 million) over FY’22.
    • TOTAL Board of Selectmen: $33,943,364 (1.37% increase over FY’22)
      • Operating budget:  $32,985,813
      • Capital: $957,551
    • Board of Education budget:  $86,677,862 (2.21% increase over FY’22)
    • Debt Service: $9,025,210
    • BOF Reserves: $1,296,464
  • The total FY’23 amount that needs to be raised through a levy is $123,021,600, a 2.76% increase ($3,303,677) from FY’22.
  • The proposed FY’23 mill rate is 28.2289, reflecting a 1.293% increase over FY’22.

After the meeting concluded and the voting began, approximately 125 people voted. Voting will continue Saturday, May 7, at the Clune Center (395 Danbury Rd.) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. As always, per the Town Charter, 15% of the eligible voters must cast votes for the vote to “count” — otherwise, the budget will automatically pass as proposed. Last year voter turnout hit only 4.23%, although it was a COVID-19 year. Officials are hoping to at least top that, holding out slim hopes attendance will reach the threshold.

Voting on the bonding items are straightforward pass/fail, no matter how many people vote.

GOOD Morning Wilton will have results on Saturday evening following the close of voting.

Annual Town Meeting Public Comment 

Most people who spoke during the public comment periods either offered support for the budgets and bonding items as proposed, or asked for clarification on specific details.

Bonding Items

  • James McSweeney:  Spoke in support of the police building replacement and asked whether inflation and escalation were built into the budget for the project. Hopkins explained that the proposed budget was compiled by a team “very aware of escalation, especially over the past year, not only tracking the effect that it would have on general construction costs, but also procurement.” She added that the building has been redesigned to be more efficient to counteract market increases and inflation as well as supply chain issues, to avoid delays. Vanderslice pledged that the $16.4 million number is final and that needing to come back to the town for more funds is “not a possibility. We’re going to work within that number. I don’t ever remember any project that needed to come back to the town to ask for more, and we don’t want to be the first. Our goal is to be within that number, and we’re working hard to achieve it.”
  • Christopher [unclear]: Asked why solar cells are not built into the project. Vanderslice said it’s typically something that the town seeks grants to cover, and that as the town has solar cells installed across school and municipal buildings that currently meet 70% of the electric needs, it’s something the town is “absolutely committed to.”
  • Shri Seshan: Asked what the cost per sq. ft. of the police project will be, and who would be accountable to keep the project on budget and from repeating “lessons learned” in past construction projects. Vanderslice answered that Facilities and Energy Director Chris Burney — who was responsible for the Miller-Driscoll renovation project that came in around $7 million under budget and ahead of schedule — has a lot of experience on municipal projects like this. She also credited a “great committee and great team” that had put the proposal together. Hopkins said that hard construction costs amounted to $600/square foot, and overall costs amounted to $700/square foot. (More detailed cost breakdowns are available on the project website.)
  • Robert Tortorella asked if the building would be LEED certified. Hopkins answered that the team is currently not planning on filing paperwork to certify the building, but the project will meet the lowest category of standards. Officials do not plan on pursuing official certification.
  • Jeff Rutishauser (former Board of Finance chair) said the idea for a new Police building was originally discussed 20 years ago when he was first on the Board of Finance, and at the time the town didn’t have the capital to do it because the Clune Center construction project was starting. He added that the town’s current ratio of debt service to budget is the lowest it’s been in several years. “It gives us the capacity to issue the bonds to pay for the project,” and he added that it’s “impossible to have a professional police department in the facilities we’ve given them. it’s almost shameful. Now is the time to do it. This is one we should definitely invest in.” His comment received loud applause.
  • Toni Boucher echoed the sentiment and said that when she was on the Board of Selectmen 25 years ago a similar police project was on the table but at the time it was “too big a lift to move forward, too expensive.”  Tuesday evening she said she was there “to enthusiastically support” the current proposal, and that the town “is very well served with this project, it’s been very well planned, vetted, it’s time we do this. It’s incredibly necessary.”
  • Kevin Czarnecki (retired Wilton Fire Captain): “A strong town has strong government, and a strong set of emergency services.” He said he’s seen the project’s value, can appreciate the hard work the building committee and architects done. “I can tell you this is a much-needed project and in need of support in this town.”

Budget Comments

  • Steve Hudspeth: Spoke in support of the budgets, which are “very well crafted.” “I would have preferred to see a higher school bugdet,” he said, but encouraged people to vote in support of the budget, not “No too low.” “If we vote too low, the no votes would be aggregated. I’d rather not see it go back to the Board of Finance. Our teachers and administrators have done an extraordinary job through COVID, they’ve found ways to make it work in the toughest of circumstances. They need our support.” He added, that even though his own children have already graduated out of Wilton Schools, he continues to support and “hope for even higher budgets, because I know how important it is to this town, its health and attracting new families; but also these are our children and they deserve our support. … It’s an incredible array of talent that we have available. we’ve also been cost-effective… these are remarkably innovative people who populate the schools. We can be very proud need to support them and that is why I strongly urge you to vote in favor.”
  • Gail Moskow: “We’ve lived here more than 50 years. in this incredible community, we have continued to live here after our daughters graduated from high school. They received a superior education thanks to the teachers and staff…. they make a difference in the lives of children and most of the time they don’t get paid nearly what they deserve for the exceptional work they do. Every year the BOE makes sure they provide the best education they can for teh children of this town. It is for this reason, I strongly urge everyone to support our BOE budget.”
  • Christopher [unclear]: Asked how the decision move from leasing technology hardware  to purchasing it would affect upgrading as technology advances. Superintendent Kevin Smith said it would be built into the cost of the operating budget in future years.
  • Ray Moskow: Asked everyone to applaud the volunteers serving on the town boards and commissions for their hard work and dedication.
  • Shri Seshan: Asked for clarification on how the number of FTE paraprofessionals are allocated. Smith explained that based on the IEPs of students receiving special education services, paraprofessionals generally assist one-to-one where required.

For further information on specific budget presentations, visit the town website or GMW‘s previous coverage. The Annual Town Meeting recorded video can also be found online.

1 COMMENT

  1. The fundamental issue is that the ATM is a budget referendum by another name. There is no opportunity to impact policies, no ability to alter line items, no chance to change anything of import. Why bother attending? May as well wait for a more convenient time on Saturday to cast a ballot.

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