On Wednesday night, March 2, the Board of Selectmen met for their last remaining budget workshop before finalizing the FY ’17 selectmen’s budget and delivering it to the Board of Finance today (Friday, March 4). As part of their discussion, they met with the Parks & Recreation Department staff to decide whether or not to approve the proposal made back in January to allow residents free access to Merwin Meadows during the summer months. One question the BoS members focused on was how the proposal would impact the Parks & Rec portion of the overall selectmen’s budget.

The proposal was approved by a 4-1 vote but not before lengthy discussion by the BoS members. Dick Dubow was the lone selectman to vote against free access for residents.

Under the plan, residents would no longer be charged for admission to Merwin during peak summer months. Parks & Rec director Steve Pierce reviewed the rest of the fee structure being proposed:  non-residents would be charged $120 for a season family pass; walk-in fees for guests of Wilton residents would be $5 for adults, and $2 for children; and daily walk-in fees for non-residents would be $10 for adults and $5 for children over 5 years old.

In addition, once the season got underway, passes would only be sold Mondays through Fridays, at Parks & Rec offices at Comstock Community Center. No passes would be sold at Merwin Meadows at all, nor could anyone purchase passes on weekends at either location.

Admission to Merwin Meadows is charged every summer beginning Memorial Day Weekend through when children return to school in September.

Pierce told the selectmen that the total budget for the park is approximately $95,000 for the summer season, which covers staff, facility maintenance, grounds maintenance, playground chips, sand, and miscellaneous supplies.

He said that income from park admission fees has risen over the last few years, primarily due to walk-in fees.

“Up to the last approximately four years, we were averaging about $30,000 with revenues that were primarily Wiltonians. It became a very popular spot on weekends for Wiltonians and non-residents. That jump in revenues went from $30,000 to roughly $73,000. The 2015 year season was $73,000 in revenue.”

According to first selectman Lynne Vanderslice, as of FY 2014, the revenues were less than $40,000, “So the huge jump occurred in FY 2015. And that’s from the increase in non-resident use at the park,” she said, adding, “We’ve grown from about $2,000 in non-resident income to about $45,000 non resident income.”

Vanderslice said the increase in numbers of non-residents using the park has made it difficult for residents to be able to access the park, given capacity. That’s something that residents have expressed to officials, and they’ve asked for that to be addressed—especially when they’re asked to pay in order to access the park.

“It’s fair to say, one of the reasons why residents, besides not having access to the playground year-round, one of the other things that we’ve heard from residents is the value of the pass is not what it was before. When you went with your kids, I’m sure you were never told you couldn’t come in because the park was at capacity. But that happened on 4th of July and three Sundays this past summer. People are saying, ‘I no longer have access to the park that I used to have.’ There’s many reasons of frustration people have expressed and why they want to see it free [for residents], but that’s one of them. That you can show up on the park, 10-11 in the morning and the park is full.”

Different Opinions

At issue for the selectmen were two questions:  1) whether the new policy of only selling passes midweek at Comstock (and not at Merwin nor on weekends) would have negative impact; and 2) whether allowing residents access for free would be too deep a cut by costing the town $30,000 in revenues.

Dubow asked whether the idea of maintaining even a minimum resident fee would be something to still consider while also increasing what has been charged in the past for non-residents.

“We’re in an extremely tight budget year, and there are things we’re not doing. To just forego $30,000 in income… To me it’s not unreasonable to ask residents to pay a small fee. To help defray the costs of the summer program, which is significant,” Dubow said.

Vanderslice reminded the board members about the proposed private-public partnership to rebuild the playground at Merwin Meadows, and how it was partially dependent on addressing the issue of resident fees.

“The piece that concerns me, and I went to the people who are going to raise money for the playground, if we are charging fees, they will not raise money for the playground. And that’s $250,000-$300,o00,” she said.

Dubow said agreeing to that stipulation would make him “very uncomfortable”; Vanderslice said she disagreed, and understood the perspective of the potential donors.

BoS member Michael Kaelin said he wasn’t sure if giving residents fee-free access would address residents’ concerns.

“Residents are concerned with overcrowding at the park. Making it free for residents is not going to address the overcrowding. That’s going to increase the overcrowding,” he said, suggesting the town look for other means for reducing the numbers of people using the park.

Vanderslice pointed out that those changes Kaelin was suggesting are already part of the proposal, including not selling passes at the park, and not selling passes on the weekends–but not for reasons of limiting crowds; instead those changes were made to help improve cash control processes.

Dubow objected to what he said were measures that would decrease access to the park overall, not just for non-residents but for residents as well, who might “spontaneously” decide on a weekend to visit the park.

Vanderslice was careful to reiterate that nothing was being done to specifically discriminate against or limit the number of non-residents who could have access to Merwin Meadows. Instead, she said the proposal was structured to make access more available for residents.

That was echoed by Parks & Rec Commission chair Mark Ketley, who added that another major reason changes were being made was to make sure that financial safeguards were put in place, given how the department had been criticized in the past for how it handled cash taken in at the Merwin Meadows gate.

“The commission talked at length. One of the issues was cash control. We took a pretty good pounding from the audit report. The town and this board and the Board of Finance had big questions about the amount of cash people were handling at Merwin. We understand the passes not being available at the park may inconvenience a few people this first year. That’s why we’re opening in the evenings, that’s why we’re opening weekends prior to the season so they can have extra hours and get passes and get a book of passes. That’s why we did that. The offshoot, what might happen, we’ll see this summer. We don’t know. Our concern was absolutely addressing cash concerns at the park,” Ketley said.

Dubow again said he was concerned that the town would be foregoing revenue if residents were no longer charged to access Merwin, as well as the inconvenience it creates to purchase passes. “The likely decrease in the number of people using the park, if that’s your intention.”

“That’s not our intention,” Vanderslice replied.

What is a concern of the Parks & Rec department when it comes to overcrowding, however, is the question of safety. “Our staff is charged first and foremost with the safety at the pond and the surrounding area. That’s our lifeguard staff. We put extra staff on because of the crowds. The waterfront staff will notify the monitor that we cannot accept any more people in until some people exit the park. At that point it can be a parking issue, sometimes people will park up on Lovers Ln. Our main concern is the safety on the waterfront,” Pierce said.

Legal Question

What seemed to be an underlying issue was concern with legalities—whether or not the town would be seen to be purposefully hampering non-residents from entering the public park.

Pierce added that his department had extensively discussed the question with town counsel as well as consulted other communities with similar protocols in place, and they found that, “basically, [it’s] how a lot of towns are doing this.”

“We came to the conclusion that if we were to bring [sales of passes] in-house, yes it’s inconvenient, but it’s across the board the same for everybody. If we’re going to apply those recommendations from the audit that everyone would like to see us do, unfortunately there are some inconveniences to the community. I don’t know how we can be all things to all people and address both sides of the equation,” Pierce said.

Dubow said there were other ways to not discourage spontaneous decisions to use the park, suggesting discounted passes purchased midweek, or a credit card machine at the park. Vanderslice disagreed, noting, “Most of the people don’t use credit cards when they come to the park. That was one of the issues.”

Kaelin added that the practice was not discriminatory because the changes inconvenienced everyone. “This is what’s done in other towns.”

Pierce noted that one other town department maintains a similar policy:  residents cannot ‘spontaneously’ go to the transfer station to dispose of anything; instead they must purchase tickets ahead of time at Town Hall. “There are certainly things in place already that are an inconvenience for residents,” he said.