BOS Finalizes NRVT “WilWalk” Agreement; School & Town Budgets Just Coming into Focus

The Tuesday, Feb. 16 Board of Selectmen meeting included a milestone of sorts for the Norwalk River Valley Trail, specifically pertaining to a stretch of the trail on the Norwalk/Wilton border known as the “WilWalk” section.

Attorney Doug LoMonte presented an overview of the agreement finally reached among the three parties involved–the town of Wilton, the city of Norwalk and the Friends of the NRVT)–outlining the “rights and obligations” for each of the respective parties.

LoMonte began with this perspective: “It’s been a long process. We weathered some storms, we stuck together with the Friends of the NRVT, and our friends in Norwalk, and it’s great to be present here, to present this… three-party agreement to you.”

Under the agreement, Wilton will manage the RFP for the construction (currently in negotiations with one bidder). Importantly, though, the Friends of the NRVT has secured a state grant to pay for the lion’s share (80%) of the expected project cost, with the Friends committing to the remaining 20% of the cost as well as any cost over-runs.

Wilton (and Norwalk) DPW will provide some oversight during the process, but the town has no responsibility for maintenance following trail construction.

The agreement also specifies important details like insurance, indemnification, and other issues related to the project.

WilWalk will run from Broad St. in Norwalk to Wolfpit Rd. in Wilton, and will be a 10-ft.-wide, stone dust trail, comparable to the existing NRVT trail in Wilton. About 1.2 miles of WilWalk are planned for construction in 2021, starting near the intersection of Grist Mill and Old Belden Hill Rds. in Norwalk, heading toward Kent Rd. in Wilton, with another short section that will run south from Wolfpit Rd. to an overlook by an old quarry pond, according to the NRVT website.

Ultimately, the NRVT  will include 30 miles of trail, connecting Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk to Rogers Park in Danbury.

Lamont’s Budget Proposal

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice briefly discussed what she considered some of the key aspects of Gov. Ned Lamont‘s recent proposal for the 2022-2023 state budget.

Lamont outlined his proposal earlier this month. In his budget address, Lamont refers to the balanced budget that was passed two years ago, a budget that was “without broad-based tax increases, without cuts to public services or cuts to our cities and towns” and that also built “the largest budget reserve in our state’s history.”

However, the proposed new budget acknowledges the economic impact of COVID and millions of dollars in lost revenue which have resulted in deficit projections in each of the next two years.

Watch Lamont’s videotaped 2021 budget address here, and GOOD Morning Wilton has broken down what the budget proposal means for Wilton below:

Education

The budget proposes to “freeze” the state’s contribution to public school education, currently allocated to cities and towns in a formula known as Education Cost Sharing (ECS). Lamont would pause ECS increases over the next two years. Those increases, approved in 2017 before Lamont took office, were intended to narrow the disparities in school spending in less affluent districts in a phased approach over 10 years.

Vanderslice called the flat-funding proposed by Lamont “good news” for Wilton in terms of budget impact, but many other districts and advocacy groups who believe the current ECS system favors more affluent communities were disappointed with the proposal and are strongly pushing back.

With more than half a billion dollars in revenue lost to the pandemic, the state is looking at federal COVID relief funds just to meet the ECS commitments.

Connecticut is set to receive $520.7 million in federal funds to cover additional costs of education during the pandemic. COVID mitigation costs alone (things like added custodial costs, plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer stations, etc.) that allow schools to open safely have been estimated to be in the range of $300 million across the state.

As part of the aid deal, Congress requires $443.2 million of the relief funds to be distributed to local school districts. Not surprisingly, a significant portion of the funds are going to the state’s largest districts (chiefly, Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven), which have seen greater negative impacts on education during the pandemic.

Wilton will receive $345,794 from these relief funds, while larger districts like Bridgeport ($40+ million) and Stamford ($12+ million) will receive vastly more, under a formula similar to the ECS model.

Of note, $61.7 million of the education relief funds remain unallocated. While the state has discretion, those funds must be spent on education. Lamont has not yet announced how those millions will be spent.

Board of Ed’s Outlook

GMW reached out to Wilton Board of Education officials for their outlook on the school budget.

In an emailed response, BOE Chair Deborah Low indicated the governor’s budget proposal had at least one benefit. “Freezing the [ECS] current amount for two years adds stability to our budget,” she said.

Stability doesn’t mean without challenges. Low said, “Our budget next year will be a challenge with several major priorities.” Those priorities include:

  • A “strategic improvement plan” for initiatives such as revisions of literacy and math curriculum units; rollout of a math program improvement plan; increasing math intervention services; narrowing the achievement gap between general education and special education students; and professional training for staff
  • Addressing the COVID slide: assessing students’ learning loss during COVID and implementing any necessary intervention services to get them caught up
  • Ensuring “adequate social and emotional support for students” in response to the challenges of the pandemic and the tragic deaths of high school community members
  • Addressing deferred capital improvements at Middlebrook

Although Low seemed hopeful about an eventual return to normal, she cautioned that there were still some uncertainties that could impact the budget, such as the difficulty of predicting enrollment. The turnover of homes in the Wilton real estate market, and students moving to/from private schools or homeschooling are all variables.

Municipal

Separate from educational aid, Connecticut is also receiving municipal aid from the federal government in the amount of $271.6 million. As with the education relief, these funds will largely be distributed to the towns. Wilton will receive $172,896.

During the BOS meeting, Vanderslice briefly alluded to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), a non-partisan organization with membership that includes all 169 Connecticut municipalities.

CCM recently issued a statement pertaining to municipal and education funding in response to the governor’s budget proposal. On one hand, the statement said, “CCM commends the Governor for protecting municipal aid and dedicating additional federal relief dollars to education and to some of our hardest-hit communities, as Connecticut continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as significant long-term fiscal challenges.”

However, on the other hand, CCM went on to express concern that the budget pulled back on state funding and used the federal aid dollars in its place. “We are concerned by the Governor’s proposal to delay both the Municipal Revenue Sharing Account grants and the scheduled increase in Education Cost Sharing funds, even though we appreciate the increases in one-time emergency assistance next year.”

Other Highlights

Broadband: Vanderslice called the governor’s proposals on broadband “important” and said facilitating broadband access across the state was “very big on the governor’s agenda and something we are happy to see.”

Housing And Zoning: Vanderslice also noted numerous legislative proposals focused around affordable housing in terms of funding, development, enforcement and overall reform, and expects this to be a very active topic on both the local and state level going forward.

Wilton’s Housing Committee is currently seeking new members.

Wilton Budget Timeline

Wilton would normally be finalizing its own budgets in March, in accordance with the town charter.

Town officials had been operating under the assumption that an executive order by Gov. Lamont had been enacted, allowing for a 30-day extension of the budget timeline, to deal with the added complications in budget forecasting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the BOS meeting, Vanderslice indicated there is some question as to whether the order has actually been executed.

If no executive order allows an exception to the timeline, Vanderslice said special meetings would likely be arranged to conduct the budget review process in an expedited fashion.

The Board of Finance has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the budget timeline on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

Vanderslice gave examples of substantial savings in operating expenses over the last fiscal year, giving some assurance about Wilton’s fiscal health in preparing for a new budget. Regardless of the timeline, she expects a budget that is “very straightforward”.

At the same time, she also said she is somewhat “uncomfortable” with the uncertainties of forecasting some budget numbers while COVID is still unfolding. She expressed particular concern about the virus variants, and the difficulty of predicting the cost of vaccine administration programs, for example, through the end of the year.

“It’s a big unknown,” she said.

As for the school budget, Superintendant Kevin Smith will present his proposed budget for 2021-22 at the next Board of Education meeting, on Thursday, Feb. 25. This will be the board’s first discussion on the budget. Following a series of workshops and the input of the Board of Finance, the BOE is scheduled to vote on Smith’s budget at a special meeting on Tuesday, March 9.

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