Tuesday night, April 13, the Board of Finance fulfilled its annual duties by approving the proposed FY’22 mill rate, budget and bonding projects that it will bring to the Annual Town Meeting (ATM) for residents to consider and vote on. But with COVID-19 protocols still in effect, the question now turns to where, when and how town officials plan to hold a gathering that usually attracts several hundred people.
The BOF members quickly checked off the first task, finishing up what they’d discussed last week: formally calculating the mill rate and finalizing a proposed budget for FY’22. They had initially planned to wrap that up at the mill rate meeting on April 6 but opted to take one more week in case any possible changes happened with funding from the state that might affect FY’22, something BOF chair Jeffrey Rutishauser called a “long shot.”
His assessment turned out to be correct, and nothing shifted at the state level.
As a result, the BOF unanimously (6-0) approved setting the FY’22 mill rate at 27.8685, reflecting a 1.48% increase over the current year. In total, taxpayers will need to fund $119,717,923, a 2.84% increase ($3,311,539) from FY’21.
The Town’s FY’22 Total Operating Requirement (the total of the Board of Education budget, the Board of Selectmen budget, Debt Service, and Reserves) rose $1.5 million to $128,788,862 (1.21%) from last year.
After last year’s reductions or holding flat, there were year-over-year increases for FY’22.
The proposed BOS budget ($33,485,486) increased 1.73% and the proposed BOE budget ($84,804,215) rose 2.99%. The BOF proposed a 2.32% increase in the Debt Service to $9,224,024.
But with less concern over unanticipated pandemic-related financial risks, town officials slashed its reserves significantly, lowering it 57.5% to $1,275,137.
Then the BOF members got to the meat of the meeting: reviewing the bonding capital projects that will be proposed by the Board of Selectmen to residents for approval. Per the Town Charter, the BOF members can only vote to do one of three things for each project: recommend, be neutral, or not recommend. They’re bound by the Charter to share with the Town Meeting only if they object to a project and why, although they can also express support.
First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice presented the town’s five-year bonded capital plan. For FY’22, she has proposed seven projects, all unanimously approved by her fellow BOS members. Five projects will be considered by residents at the May Annual Town Meeting, while the other two–Police Station renovations and upgrading the emergency radio system–will be considered at a special town meeting later this year. (The radio project may be covered by the American Rescue Plan.)
She noted that last year’s ATM was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Historically, Wilton funded road paving as an operating expense, but typically underfunded or delayed it and then was forced to catch up when the roads deteriorated badly. In 2013, the town started a five-year plan to pave 50 miles of roads–10 miles each year–by borrowing the funds. After Vanderslice became First Selectwoman, she proposed a five-year, 75-mile plan, in order to for all of Wilton’s 127 miles of town-owned roads to be repaved within a 10-year period.
The Fiscal Year 2022 will bring Wilton to the end of that 15 miles per year plan. Vanderslice has asked the town to approve bonding for $1.5 million, the equivalent of paving only five miles–much less than what would have been expected. She explained that in some of the past five years, the town applied budget savings and state grants toward road paving costs, leaving borrowed money to be banked toward the following year’s paving projects. As a result, the town only needs to borrow $1.5 million for the final year to finish all remaining roads.
Once FY’22 paving is finished, the question remains for what will happen for FY’23. Can the town return to paying for paving out of operating budgets?
“[That] was always the problem when we started this. … When you’re done with these [bonded] paving years, how are you ever going to [find] that money [in] the BOS [operating] budget?” Vanderslice explained. “On a $33 million budget, if we were going to pick up an expense of $3 million, we’re talking about a 9% increase next year in the BOS budget to put this into operating.”
As part of a statewide infrastructure evaluation program, the CT Department of Transportation has identified 23 Wilton bridges (both state-owned and municipal-owned) that need to be repaired or replaced–at a total cost of $13 million. Approximately 80-90% of the cost is typically covered by state grants, but the town needs to fund the remaining 10-20%, which will likely need to be done through bonding.
The 23 projects have been prioritized by severity. Bonding for the two worst Wilton bridges (Lovers Lane and Arrowhead Rd.) was approved at the 2019 ATM and work is already underway.
Now the BOS has put repair for the next projects on the ballot for 2021.
The $538,000 bonding request this year is targeted for seven projects: Wilton’s third-worst bridge on Musket Ridge Rd. (to cover the town’s portion of design costs for replacing the culvert) and six other bridges that need repair.
The five-year plan shows the remaining anticipated bonding requests over the next four years–assuming the town receives the grants it requests–as part of the state’s infrastructure repairs.
Aerial Fire Truck (Ladder Truck) Replacement–$1,450,000
Fire Chief Jim Blanchfield joined the meeting to present the Fire Department’s need to replace its aerial fire truck. The vehicle that needs to be replaced is a 2004 model purchased new in 2003. The truck pulls double duty, responds to just about every call because of its multi-purpose features as well as being equipped as a rescue truck.
The manufacturer of the vehicle no longer supports repairs on the steering mechanism. Although the department had hoped to get a few more years out of the truck, Blanchfield explained that replacing it is the only option: refurbishment would be too costly and would eliminate the warranty and any opportunity to trade in the truck. He estimated the current trade-in value at $75,000-$125,000.
“It sounds crazy, but the most cost-effective method for a vehicle for Wilton at this point in time would be a new vehicle,” Banchfield said.
A new vehicle would also have added safety features. The chief expressed his confidence in getting 20 years of service from it and projected the town would realize savings from needing less repair work.
He added that with the growth of the town since 2003, as well as projected expansion reflected in the recent Plan of Conservation and Development and the proposed Master Plan, an aerial truck becomes even more of a necessary vehicle for Wilton.
“If you just think about the town back in 2003, and you think about where we are now, you can just look at the Rte. 7 corridor and we’re building up. You can look at the different residences that are across Rte. 7, you can look at Wilton Center, you can look at the different commercial establishments. The town has been building up to some capacity. There was a need back then there’s a greater need now,” Blanchfield said, adding, “The fact that it doubles as a rescue, it’s like we’re getting two trucks at once.”
He also said the department would continue to pursue the most economical price for the final vehicle it intends to purchase, whether working in partnership with other fire departments or in the customized truck specifications.
Middlebrook Tennis Courts–$350,000
With the uptick in usage of the Wilton High School tennis courts following their replacement, as well as the increased use during the pandemic, town officials say it’s time to replace the Middlebrook School tennis courts.
Answering a question from Rutishauser about whether the town would consider striping a Middlebrook court to include a pickleball court, Vanderslice told the BOF that the town has proposed to install a pickleball court by the Merwin’s Meadow soccer field. She added that she’s heard fewer requests from residents for a pickleball court as other venues have opened, including an indoor court at Comstock Community Center.
Wilton School District Roof Replacement–$600,000
Two years ago the town performed thermal imaging of all town building roofs to identify sections of roofs that needed to be replaced. Last year sections of Town Hall’s roof were replaced to start the multi-year program, and Vanderslice said the town now needs to move on to begin replacing roof sections on some of the school buildings.
Total Bonding Need–$4,438,000
Vanderslice explained that the town will actually not need to borrow the full $4,438,000 needed for the projects thanks to savings from other past closed bonded projects that can be applied. She has forecasted those savings at $1.8 million.
At the end of the current fiscal year (FY’21), Wilton will carry about $74 million in debt. After borrowing what’s needed for FY’22, the town will end up with approximately $76 million in debt service.
The Board of Finance voted unanimously to support each of the five bonding proposals, and will do so publicly again at the ATM. BOF member Michael Kaelin offered the only specific comment, calling the fire truck a “critical piece of equipment.”
“What we didn’t mention that needs to be mentioned, it’s really a safety issue. This literally can be a matter of life and death. It’s safety for the firemen, it’s safety for the residents in the town. … We have the bare minimum of staffing with six firemen on a shift. And every time there’s a call, we can only have three trucks go out. And one of them really needs to be the ladder truck, which is combined with the rescue because the mission of the fire department–those six people–their first thing is to save lives. So since we don’t have robust staffing, we have to give them the best equipment we can,” Kaelin said.
Where, When and How the Annual Town Meeting will be Held
Vanderslice reminded the BOF that town officials have discussed holding the Annual Town Meeting outside in the high school stadium due to the pandemic and required social distancing. That idea was based on the expectation that the same number of people that typically attend each year–approximately 400–would want to be present in person.
But now, Vanderslice doesn’t think the town needs to go to such lengths.
“As a result of the unusually low engagement by residents in this year’s budget process, we’re no longer feeling that we are going to get the larger number of people that we normally have. Therefore I spoke with the health director who was comfortable allowing us to hold it indoors at the Clune Center, and the BOS agree,” she said.
As of now, officials have planned to hold the meeting on Saturday, May 8 at 3 p.m. Although the town typically holds its meeting on the first Tuesday in May, officials set Saturday, May 8 as the meeting date in February, and any deadline to change that has now passed (per state law and the Town Charter).
Officials will take several steps to ensure the safety of all attendees, including only seating people who are speaking at the meeting on the stage. Usually all three town boards–Finance, Education and Selectmen–sit onstage, but not this year.
In addition, Vanderslice is optimistic that attendees will be protected thanks to the high vaccination rate among residents.
“At this point as of [April 8], which was last Thursday, 73% of Wilton residents aged 18-and-above had been vaccinated. So when we get to May 8, that number could easily be north of 90%. So we don’t really feel like we’re disenfranchising anyone,” she said, adding that attendance at the ATM typically “is skewed towards the older residents.”
“You don’t get a lot of people from age 18-35, or maybe even 40, that attend. So the vaccination rates for the group above 40 is even higher than that 73%. So we’re comfortable from that standpoint also to moving it indoors,” Vanderslice said.
The town will hold the adjourned vote on the following Saturday, May 15 from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m.
As always, the town needs to reach a 15% voter turnout threshold in order for the votes to qualify. Otherwise, with less than a 15% voter turnout, the budget automatically passes.
Bonding referendums require no minimum and will pass or fail based on whatever the actual vote is.