Last night was a cold and rainy fall Thursday night (Oct. 1), but inside the Wilton Grange Hall the atmosphere was warm and calm, as the two candidates for Wilton first selectman, Lynne Vanderslice and Deborah McFadden, welcomed a multitude of questions from those residents in attendance at Election2015‘s first “meet the candidates” forum.
The forum, organized by the Grange, saw a turnout of about 30 people, reflective of the low voter turnout the town has consistently seen for town votes over the last several years. But those who did brave the rain to hear what the two candidates had to say about what they’d do, if elected, came to ask some very pointed questions.
Kicking off the forum, each candidate talked a little bit about themselves, before answering questions asked by members of the audience as well as previously submitted questions that organizers posed. Topics ranged from what to do with the annual budget surplus at the end of every fiscal year, to how the town can cultivate new business development opportunities, to what can be done to promote better voter turnout to the polls.
Editor’s note: The questions and answers have been edited for time and clarity, but the intent and meaning has not been changed. Audience members have been identified unless they asked to remain anonymous. Both candidates responded to all questions.
Bringing New Businesses to Increase the Tax Base
Don Sauvigne: You spoke of increasing the base with the grand list and bringing more companies into the town, through the economic development commission. In the face of the state, which appears highly unfriendly to business as well as the tax problems of the state, how do we brand Wilton so that businesses will come here?
Lynne Vanderslice: I met with the managing principal of one of the largest land holders in town, in the corridor along Rte. 7, from Wolfpit on down. That is a place that is very attractive to national corporations. If you look at what businesses are in those buildings, they don’t have difficulty filling them. One tenant leaves and the next one is already lined up. North of that area, it’s small business and regional businesses. We need to appeal to two different types of business in our town.
One of the big things we can do is to get out there to say we’re business friendly and be business friendly.
The Economic Development Commission was formed two years ago and they now have a great website. It’s been a slow start, but I plan to have a fast-track group, to be a response team, to help one navigate through all of our systems, like Planning and Zoning, etc., so it’s an easier and more encouraging process.
I was at last Monday’s P&Z meeting and one of the things on the agenda was changing the bulk density so we could change the parking. We’re not going to have non-intrusive parking regulations. So now, the new tenant is going to come in, with more people now there. I asked this representative there, what they were looking for and they said they have plans that they want to execute in Wilton and they could only do those plans if this bulk parking was passed. So kudos it passed. Now we have two major employers town bringing people in.
Deborah McFadden: It’s important to understand that when you grow the grand list, it’s through developing the business community and housing.
What we need to do, as a community is to bring all the stakeholders together. Last week I met the outgoing and incoming directors of the Chamber of Commerce. We need to bring them and the town and the property owners together and have everyone sit down and come up with a clear vision of what we want the community to look like.
We should be proactive. It’s important to advocate for the town itself. We just need to be careful about planning housing. For example, if you want to step down from a single-family home and you’re not quite ready to live at Ogden House, where do you live that’s in between? That’s missing. So I think we can explore where we can do that sort of housing.
I also think what’s important as we progress that we recognize our historic heritage. We protect our open spaces and the environment we have in this community. We don’t want to do it haphazardly. We need to have a real plan. That’s why many of us moved here.
Bonding Road Paving
Q: The budget over the last 8-10 years was balanced and we took road maintenance out. It was an annual cost for many years and was paid that way. Then all of a sudden we’re bonding it. I would like to see it phased back into the annual budget. If we can’t raise taxes, then we’ll have to cut someplace else. Any plans on that?
Deb McFadden: I remember that time, the recession hit, that’s how we balanced the budget. But you end up paying the piper. I agree, if we can work it back in, that would be a good thing. Bonding cost is low right now. We’re fortunate to have a triple-A bond rating in this town. Whatever we do going forward we need to protect that. We have been told we are a fiscally responsible community by Moody’s. We need to be careful not to jeopardize that.
Lynne Vanderslice: I voted against it. I thought it was wrong. Roads have always been an operating expense and they should stay as such. Typically we bond at 15 or 20 years. Under bonding rules, you can put in even a 20-year useful life. So when you have Miller-Driscoll in there, you can bond things with a much shorter life. It’s difficult but we’ll have to find ways to bring it in, even if we have to cut costs. Bonding is not the answer. It just defers the problem.
Budget Surpluses–Do They Belong to Residents?
Rita, town resident: My biggest frustration during budget season, it’s presented budget to budget. In the future, will you show as actual amounts, particularly when the selectmen come in under budget? Those savings move back into the charter authority or whatever that slush fund is called. But that’s my money as a result of being overcharged in taxes. I want that back.
Lynne Vanderslice: I absolutely agree with you. It was an issue I had when I was on the board as a finance committee member. I presented the budget and I compared them to actual.
The Bd. of Selectmen comes in under budget. We will this year. The BoS will be under budget by $700,000.
When I joined there was no forecasting. So, say the 2010 budget, you’re not looking at 2011 and 2012 and 2013. I changed that and developed a model that we use now every year. We look at numbers on a multi-year basis.
We will have a new CFO. It should be interesting to see how this will all work. We need to supply better tools to the taxpayers to be able to figure this out.
Deb McFadden: I want to get back to the points you made, about the slush fund. The BoS comes in this year with a surplus of $700,000. Part of that was money back from FEMA. We were closing out some construction projects, etc.. The majority of that money was not money in this budget.
Rita: But it seems to happen ever year.
Deb McFadden: Yes, you’re right. Our department heads are very good, about when there is money as opposed to some communities, where department heads think they have to spend it every year, so they can keep it. If we use it this year it’s a one-shot deal. But it could help so that the mil rate level could be a little lower than what it could have been, than what we had in the past.
We do need to look at our actuals. When we bring in the new CFO, I hope we can get into more meatier issues. I hope we find someone really strong so we can have some efficiencies between the town and schools.
Low Voter Turnout
Frank Long: In this last town meeting when the budget was voted on, I think there was 11.5-percent of the residents voting on it. Participation on elections is on the decline. A larger section of town is unaffiliated with any one party. Is it of any importance to you, this decline in public participation? People feel disconnected. Would you be interested to bridge that gap?
Deb McFadden: We need to do what we can to improve voter participation. This election you have a choice, unlike others where you had one person running unopposed.
Voter: At the budget election, we had a 11.5-percent turnout. It’s important to take note, at the last budget election, that the majority voted it down. But our charter authority says it has to be a minimum of 15-percent. So it automatically passed.
Deb McFadden: Then you have to convene a charter commission, and they can decide to change that. I would do whatever I could, to enhance communication. We need to work on that. We do need to get people engaged.
Lynne Vanderslice: I am concerned about it, it’s an issue for me for a couple of reasons. Specifically the 15-percent: I grew up with the town meeting government in Massachusetts. I believe a town meeting should be making those decisions. We should be true to who we are and we should allow the vote to go through as it is.
We have to do outreach. We have the 9-1-1 reverse call system. You all get a call if there is a storm. You should all be able to use that system to notify you that there is a special vote or a budget hearing. It’s frustrating when maybe only three people in the room show up when you’re putting out this budget.
We should have better signage. I want to see more signage. I think if people knew their vote would count and mean more, they would come.
Faye Shiley via email: What do you do about a school system that spends $80 million a year to ‘educate’ students, about $20,000 each K-through-12, has a capital budget of $50 million to renovate a school and produces the lowest SBAC scores in the area?
Lynne Vanderslice: I trust in [superintenent] Dr. [Kevin] Smith. He’s very aware of the costs. He comes from an inner city Catholic school system where you have to do everything on a shoe string. I have complete confidence in hm and the teachers in our school. There’s been a lot of buzz on recent test scores. The test is in reaction to the Common Core. I think what has been said is accurate. Some towns were ahead of us in implementing it.
You need to know the context. We’re still graduating smart, well-prepared students who are graduating and moving on to good schools.
Deb McFadden: I have a student in the high school and he’s concerned about the SATs and ACTs. We live here because we have confidence in the schools.
I’ve served with Dr. Smith. We spend a lot of time together. I have confidence in our superintendent. Our general scores have been very strong consistently. We receive a lot of accolades in the high and primary schools. Last year we had a Presidential Scholar! How many towns can say that?
You also touched on the renovation of Miller-Driscoll. That school had to be renovated. It had to have things. Once you start a project, whether a school or house, one you start you have to come up to code. So you can’t just do a roof and the HVAC. You have to put in the sprinkler system. Everything has to come up to code. And there’s questions on abatement issues. when you compare what we’re building, if you just did the requirements and barely meeting the code, the difference between that was about a million dollars. If you did it piecemeal, where you did a portion here and another portion there, it would have cost us more. It will be great when it’s done. We’re going to have virtually a new school.
Lynne Vanderslice: On the M-D renovation, I went through the building before in 2012. I requested a tour for the board. You saw there were issues with water. It was overcrowded. There was so much wasted space. And we didn’t have fire sprinklers in that building. I voted as a member of the Finance Board to have it done.
So I’m very hopeful and as first selectman, I’m very focused on bringing that project in under budget.
Budget Cuts, Middlebrook Turf
Dan Ginsberg: You both mentioned areas being cut within the budget; any specifics there? You mentioned the Middlebrook turf issue. Your thoughts on that?
Lynne Vanderslice: I do think there are opportunities in the budget to reduce costs. Maybe share some functions with the board of education. I won’t get into detail for obvious reasons, but there is an opportunity there. Some of the things we consistently over budget–one silly example: the transfer station. Every year that budget includes depreciation. Well that isn’t a part of budgeting.
I also think we have to explore opportunities with other town. Weston [has] the exact same issues: high mil rates. Redding too. They’re not seeing the grand list growth. We’re all seeing the same problem, so why can’t we get together?
I ran a large department. I had to deal with those kinds of things. I had to develop creative solutions. I can do it.
As far as the Middlebrook Turf issue, I went to the last three zoning meetings. This has been pretty much done outside of the town. After going to these meetings, it’s a long, long process, and I think it might be time for the town to step in. The concept of a group who wants to add an amenity and raise the funds? It’s absolutely the way to do that. So their approach is right. I love the grass roots approach.
Deb McFadden: In terms of budget, there are some economies: sharing between departments but also between the town and the schools. Some are in the process of doing that. We’re doing the payrolls right now.
Leveraging opportunities with the state and regionalism: all types of grants. There’s all kinds of things we can explore. You have to look outside the box. That was one of the things I was noted for in Salt Lake City. You give me a problem, I bring the stakeholders together and as a group develop solutions together to solve it.
As a town and as selectman, we look at the issues all collectively and how they interface with each other. Whether it’s a turf project or a new business, we look at the process.
The library, Ambler Farm, Trackside, the Turf at the High School, are all examples of public/private venture.
The construction of the last turf field was not handled well and we can do better with the next turf project.
15-Percent Voter Requirement
Q: Voters rejected the budget last time, because of our charter, so the voters had to accept it regardless of the charter, the voters who did go, didn’t vote for it. Is that going to be changed?
Deb McFadden: To change that, a charter commission would have to be convened. I commit now that I would convene a charter commission. You convene one and then assemble and they change anything they want and present it. And then the voters vote on it.
Lynne Vanderslice: I don’t like the 15-percent cap and I would also work to have a charter commission.
Q: The voter turnout was abysmal. That is tyranny by the few and abdication by the many. What do you do to change that? Last election, there were signs all over Rte. 7. What do you do as leaders of this town to change the trajectory of this apathy?
Lynne Vanderslice: You have to change the attitude of this town to get people more interested, to get involved. It’s about getting out to all of the community groups and engaging them. There has to be outreach all year round, not just signs at that time. You know how few people we get there? Probably in 2010, in Middlebrook that auditorium was full. That was the last big turnout. It corresponded with when the recession really hit.
We used to rely on the PTA and other organizations to tell people what’s going on. So we have to take the lead ourselves as a town and do a lot more communicating.
Deb McFadden: I agree. The good news is that we’re better than Weston at 4-percent. But we have to be proactive. We can use social media. We can do a lot of things to better communicate. We know people are capable of voting. When we have a presidential election, people turn out into the high 80s. We have to do it.
Development around Transportation Hubs
Keith Rogerson: What is your vision for development on town land adjacent to the train stations at Wilton Center, Cannondale and Branchville? Do you support using town resources, including assembling parcels and rezoning to attract pedestrian-oriented, vibrant, mixed-use development adjacent to the train stations?
Deb McFadden: I am for development. Having it near the train station is important. I can’t say what my vision is as I don’t sit and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do and this is where we’re going.’
We need to be collaborative. Property owners, business owners, and anyone who has a vested interest should be part of the conversation. We collectively develop what is going to be our mission. I would be an active voice to make sure we keep to a schedule and come out with a final answer, with actionable steps and then we take those steps. My vision is we work as a team. I think mixed-use is a really great idea around our train stations.
The town has to play an active role in re-zoning. As a town, if you do that, it makes it easier for a developer to come in and just go.
We can do a lot more with our train stations. As hubs they are under-utilized. We did get a state grant, for a pedestrian bridge to our train station. You’ll be able to walk from the train station into downtown.
Some of the gaps in the sidewalk will be filled in. You’ll have better sidewalks. You’ll have the pedestrian bridge. These are all steps to realizing better opportunities to utilizing our train station.
Lynne Vanderslice: If you look at the three areas–town center–you have business, the teen center, Wilton Commons. You will have the bridge that will connect Merwin Meadows and the Trail. The town was instrumental in getting that bridge. That shows right there what can happen when everybody comes together.
One place I’d like to see an effort put into is this area Cannondale, right here. I have really fond memories down here. It used to be a very vibrant area over here. We had great shops, the Blessing of the Animals, and the Grange.
This is a spot that can be revitalized. We have historic buildings. We have the train, we need alternative housing. If you look who moved into town, it was all empty nesters at River Ridge. The opportunity is in town-owned land. The town should take the lead, not in designing it, but be partners, willing to invest their money. It’s a team that will come up with a plan that neighbors will be happy with and the community will be happy with. The town should step up and seek those partners. If we need zoning changes to make that happen, we should support it.
RTC Nominating Procedures
Jon Tan: Can you please comment in your capacity as a public head of the local Republican party and in your role as potential future first selectman–which the RTC choice has gone on to win during the last 20 years–how do Republican voters know they have the best candidate for first selectman when all candidates are nominated and voted on behind closed doors and only by RTC insiders?
Lynne Vanderslice: I was given the nomination by the RTC, but note I have never been a member of the RTC. I made it publicly known to all the members of the RTC that I was putting in my nomination. There were others who applied to the nominating committee. We went through an interview process and I was selected. I was open and transparent. Many people knew I was seeking the nomination.
You’re not automatically put in. We have a large affiliated voter group. It’s the largest of the three. There is a significant majority. I also have endorsements of people who are unaffiliated with the party line. So at this point, it’s really up to the town to vote if I’m not the right candidate. [laughter]
Q: The nature of this town is changing. A number of historic town buildings are changing. One on Hurlbutt is about to disappear. One on Belden Hill is gone. There’s a National Historic Commission that deals with some of these things. What do you think about changing that equation a little bit so the town has more influence over buildings that are known to be important to the town, so builders can’t com in and negotiate it off the town rolls?
Deb McFadden: You have two interests: historic preservation interests and the property owner interests. So I’m going to tell you I don’t know. But I think it’s worth exploring. I think our historic housing stock is an important part of our heritage. I think a number of efforts have been made to save some of that. I would look into what we can do to save our historic housing stock.
Lynne Vanderslice: I support the efforts f the Ambler Farm Foundation. They raised money and they are creating what has become a focal point of our town and it’s supported by private fundraising.
There are historic buildings but they’re not deeded. So what are we doing? When people buy them the town would then place a restriction after the fact? Then, they can’t sell it. I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think the town has the right to impose when there are other avenues to do that, that are successful.
The property on Rte. 33 has been topic of late. The demolition signs are up. People are talking about that property, how to save it. But when it was on the market and for sale, no one said anything and no one bought it. Can we move it? Can it go someplace else? Can the town provide funding for that at this point? I think Not. If there was a groundswell, then maybe. But we can’t fund that ourselves. Maybe if it was privately funded, then maybe we could help facilitate that. People talked about taking it apart and moving it, but it would be very expensive to do so at this point.
Growing the Grand List
Q: The revenue side of the budget, growing the grand list. We have the town pretty much built out. All of the large parcels are accounted for. How do you see the grand list growing?
Deb McFadden: Within the next term, whoever the first selectman is, there will be another major parcel on the market. During that term, I think there’s still opportunities. We’re not maxed out 100-percent, we still have some spaces.
We don’t want uncontrolled, haphazard growth. With smart growth, there still is potential in town.
Lynne Vanderslice: “We discussed specific instances. There’s economic growth happening. Bringing in more housing, like we have in River Ridge. So there’s lots of opportunities for it. It’s the 2-acre, single family property that we’re almost maxed out at. We have a lot of boards and commissions you have to go through along the way. I’d like to fast track that.
Q: Catering recently for a town event was not done by a local business; it was done by a Panera Bread. We couldn’t go through our town food suppliers? Our town and Board of Ed don’t support our local businesses. Would you have a philosophy of ‘Wilton First?’ Would you be open to having bids and having a last look to Wilton vendors?
Lynne Vanderslice: You just brought up all the reasons we should do that.
Deb McFadden: We totally agree. It should be a local business providing those kinds of things. The Chamber has a great saying: Shop Local! We can do a better job, in communicating to the community. The message has to be out to all in town government.