With some moving variables, and choices they didn’t all agree on, the Board of Selectmen adopted a proposed budget for FY’21 that they’ll now send to the Board of Finance.
When the BOS met last month, the members had narrowed down the options for a budget increase they would propose to three possible scenarios: 0.5% or 1.4% or 2.3%.
With the budget clock ticking, the BOS members needed to settle on a firm number at their meeting Monday night (Mar. 2). They voted to accept a 1.22% increase over last year, for a total operating budget of $33,911,800.
But it wasn’t easy to get there, and there was some pushback over what would have to go.
The problem was twofold: on one hand, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice would like to have town employees participate in the state’s lower-cost health insurance plan, but those costs haven’t been firmed up by state officials; on the other hand, even if numbers were locked in, the town is still in contract negotiations with the town employee unions, and Vanderslice isn’t sure if they’ll agree to switch plans.
If both issues get worked out, the town could stand to save $600,000.
While Vanderslice hasn’t gotten official word on state health plan costs, she told the BOS members that she has heard from an official in the state comptroller’s office about what participation costs are likely to be. “We know what we were estimating as savings were in the right ball park.”
But she isn’t as sure about what the union groups will decide to do–and that’s too risky for her to say for sure.
“I don’t think we’re in a position to keep that $600,000 savings in the budget, I think that’s too much of a risk. So my recommendation is we keep half of the savings in the budget, and add back $300,000 in costs to the budget for medical benefits,” she said.
While that leaves a $300,000 risk if no town employees move to the state plan, Vanderslice says that’s acceptable.
“I think we can assume that risk. The worst case is if we have no savings we can go to the Charter Authority for it. It’s worth keeping the pressure on, and being committed to this [with the unions]. We have a 1% contingency, and we have been consistently under budget. So I’m ok with taking half back,” she said.
Trackside–To Cut or Not To Cut
Looking for another area of savings, Vanderslice proposed cutting approximately $33,000 from the grant allocated to Trackside Teen Center–about one-third of the current grant.
“That’s consistent with plan that we set forth and they agreed to for financial independence,” she explained.
In 2017, when the town grant had been at about $150,000; the BOS mapped out step decreases in town support for Trackside over five years.
Since then Trackside has gone through both board member and staff management changes; Vanderslice said the town “gave them a pass last year,” holding flat without a cut while the non-profit transitioned through the turnover in personnel. That, she said, added a 6th year to the plan for independence.
Selectwoman Deb McFadden argued against reducing Trackside’s grant from the town.
“I would argue for reducing their reduction. I see you’re trying to trend to follow the plan that was developed–” she said.
Vanderslice interjected, “I’m actually extending the plan.”
McFadden said lessening the reduction Vanderslice wanted would be almost imperceptible in the town budget, but very helpful to Trackside.
“In terms of our overall budget, the difference between $20,000 and $32,000 is pennies on the household,” McFadden argued.
Vanderslice referred to Trackside’s financials, noting that there’s been “large” revenue growth, to cover any increases in their expenses. So what, she asked McFadden, would be the rationale for making a smaller cut?
She had answers for each point McFadden raised. Noting that the Genesis School now operating out of the Station Rd. building was bringing in $50,000 in revenue, and that any building modifications from that program had been covered by the school budget.
Plus, Vanderslice said, the $33,000 reduction was already less than what the plan for independence called for. She argued that she was looking out for taxpayers.
“Instead of doing a 50% reduction, which is what we would do if we were sticking to the plan, we’re basically doing a 33% reduction, so we’ve already slowed it down. And they have that revenue of the $50,000 from the schools which is taxpayer money. I feel like the taxpayers have already increased the funding to Trackside because we’re renting that. I’m not sure why we would go even further? What would you do next year? Would you cut [more] next year or are you looking to extend it out even further?” Vanderslice responded.
McFadden said she was worried that cuts spelled a troubling trend.
“I want to keep them viable, I don’t want to end up like New Canaan did where they lost their whole [teen] facility. It’s valuable to the community, it’s used by other groups, I want to keep them viable. I agree we need to trend them being more self sustaining but not in a way to damage them.”
She didn’t find agreement from Josh Cole: “We need to continue on the path started years ago, trying to pull back on the amount the town funds. It’s been a few years, we thought they were going to be more financially independent. It [already] is less than we were going to cut if we continued with the path set before. We need to continue to get them to a point where they’re self-sufficient,” he said, adding “The $50,000 rent they receive from schools should go a fair distance toward absorbing this cut.”
Plus, said Vanderslice, Trackside has been compensating for any daytime rental lost because of Genesis. “This year they charged Wilton Rocks for Food $2,000, where before they got it for free. I don’t think that $50,000 is preventing them from rent.”
Vanderslice argued that reducing the grant would push Trackside to be more independent in managing its budget.
“Look at their financial statements: they’re losing on every program they run in direct costs, and not absorbing any of the overhead costs. You want them to be sustainable–and I agree with you–the only way it is going to be sustainable is if they get to a model where their revenues can cover all their expenses,” she said.
Vanderslice said she felt strongly about Trackside being independent from town support. “This is a non-profit organization that’s not part of the town, and I think there’s a responsibility on their part to figure out how to run this.” She estimated that the town has provided $1.5 million over Trackside’s 15 years of existence.
Lori Bufano sided with Vanderslice too.
“We need to keep them on their plan, and get them to where we want them to be,” she said. “I don’t want to see them hurt, but we’ve done a lot.”
Ross Tartell said Trackside provides a “…very important function in the town, tying across a number of socio-economic levels and different functional groups, almost like a community center. They’re recognized as an important component to what makes this town what it is, and provides an amenity in a town that doesn’t have a lot of them.”
Cole countered that more town residents benefit from other town amenities than Trackside. “Keep in mind how much of the town uses it, versus other amenities like Schenck’s, and the parks–how much the typical residents benefits from it versus other programs.”
Any other argument McFadden made, Vanderslice countered with multiple objections. When McFadden suggested inviting the Trackside board to present regularly, and “…be more of a true public/private partnership,” Vanderslice said the only official public/private partnership the town has now is with the Wilton Library. What’s more, any previous offers of help–to come more frequently to BOS meetings, to use town resources like financial software–haven’t been taken up by Trackside. She also said programming Trackside offers could be offered by Social Services and Parks and Recreation.
Moreover, she said more town residents use and support the Library and Comstock, even referring to discussions around the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development.
“This isn’t the library. Because it’s used by people of limited ages, and more and more people are using Comstock to have their activities. The Library is different, and the onus has to be on this group to figure out how you can make a teen center sustainable. No other town has been able to do it, this group wants to keep it going, they have to figure it out,” Vanderslice said.
She added that the grant from the town is “still $67,000-plus grant.”
“When you look at grants, we make two: the library and to them. It’s still a lot of money.”
Vanderslice said whatever dollars saved by reducing Trackside’s grant would be directed toward additional foliage clearing along River Rd.–something she said is very popular with residents.
Speaking of what residents would prefer, Vanderslice closed the discussion by saying that last year’s Board of Finance survey showed that over 50% of residents would accept a budget increase between 1-2%. “We’re in that range.”
Vanderslice will appear at the BOF meeting next Tuesday, March 10, to present this budget and answer questions.