Just when you think you understand what the American Rescue Plan (ARP) is and how it will (or won’t) work for Wilton, prepare for whiplash. Town officials once thought they’d have a difficult time meeting the eligibility requirements for the more than $5 million allocated for Wilton, but in just one week the news changed for the better.
At the June 22 meeting of the Board of Selectmen (BOS), First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice informed the board about the U.S. Treasury‘s latest guidelines on how Wilton may spend the roughly $5.4 million in grant money allocated to the town under ARP. Those guidelines have been released in a slow-drip fashion following the plan’s enactment in March 2021.
Vanderslice’s overall assessment varied sharply from what she told the Board of Finance (BOF) just one week before, including some new, critical eligibility details.
At the time of the June 15 BOF meeting, Vanderslice believed it would be “difficult” for the town to utilize much of the allocated funds, based on training she and Wilton CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz had received through the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), a municipal advocacy group to which Wilton belongs.
“This is a very, very different presentation than I made to the Board of Finance just a week ago,” Vanderslice told the BOS. “But we’re continuing to get information and we’re all learning as new or clarified information comes in.”
As it turns out, it may not be difficult at all to access the ARP grant money. The latest guidance from the Treasury is very much in Wilton’s favor.
Replacing Lost Revenues
From the outset, ARP was envisioned, among other objectives, to fill revenue shortfalls for local municipalities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanks to prudent financial moves early in the pandemic, along with higher-than-expected revenue from conveyance taxes and permit fees related to Wilton’s booming real estate market, Wilton did not experience a decline in revenue during the pandemic. For that reason, Vanderslice did not expect to qualify for ARP spending under the lost revenue provision.
But, as Vanderslice just learned, the way that the Treasury is defining lost revenue will work to Wilton’s advantage.
“So the good news, something that we’ve learned since I spoke to the Board of Finance, is Wilton will qualify under replacing lost revenues,” she told the BOS.
In fact, she said, “The greatest latitude in how you can spend [ARP] money is if you are replacing lost revenue.”
That is because the Treasury is calculating lost revenue using a three-year average growth rate of 4.1%, based on 2015-2018 data from state and local governments across the country.
Revenue loss would be defined as any amount less than the 4.1% annual revenue growth rate since 2019, Wilton’s last full fiscal year before the pandemic.
Even though Wilton would never have budgeted at such a high growth rate, Vanderslice said that by using the 4.1% growth projection, Wilton will be able to demonstrate so-called lost revenue in an amount that would actually exceed the grant total allocated for Wilton.
“It’s irrelevant that we are beating our fiscal year 2021 budget,” Vanderslice noted.
That seems almost too good to be true, making Vanderslice wary of the potential for more rule changes. “Anne [Kelly-Lenz] and I are very cautious,” she said. “You worry that somebody [at Treasury] is going to wake up and say, wait a minute … As I said before, I think [as] we move forward with this, we just need to do it in a cautious way in case something changes in the future.”
Vanderslice noted that the town has received the first half of the grant money already, to the tune of approximately $2.7 million.
Vanderslice Prioritizes Infrastructure
Options for spending are “very broad,” according to the first selectwoman.
“The qualified expenditures under lost revenue do include infrastructure,” Vanderslice confirmed, noting that anything related to “the provision of government services” such as road paving or emergency services, for example, would be allowed.
Vanderslice is strongly recommending the funds go toward the cost of a new emergency services radio system. Upgrading the system is an obligation that Vanderslice expects will cost Wilton taxpayers about $2.5 million. Vanderslice hopes that once final costs are determined, the project will be the subject of a Special Town Meeting in the fall and put to a town vote in November.
In considering possible ways to spend the ARP funds, Vanderslice urged the BOS to be mindful of the ARP’s strategic aims of providing relief from COVID-19 impacts. Although direct aid to individuals, small businesses and non-profits may ultimately come through state-administered programs, Vanderslice said, “I do think we should be consistent with the spirit of this… funding in areas within the town government that are critical during the pandemic and any similar future event. So I expect when we come forward with proposals, they’ll fit in those buckets.”
ARP or Not, Infrastructure Should be Prioritized, Vanderslice Says
Regardless of ARP funding, Vanderslice sees a number of infrastructure projects demanding Wilton’s attention in the near term.
While emphasizing that town departments need and deserve time to “re-group” from the pandemic, Vanderslice clearly enumerated her top priorities in a memo to the BOS which she also discussed at the June 22 meeting. In addition to the emergency radio system, those priorities include:
- Final proposal for police headquarters (like the radio system, this would also go to a Special Town Meeting for approval)
- Vendor selection and completion of fire headquarters kitchen renovation project
- RFQ and vendor selection for fire station (two renovations)
- RFQ and vendor selection for required work for town-owned New St. property (a rental)
- RFQ and vendor selection for the pedestrian bridge (Wilton Center)
- Complete CY2021 paving plan and pave a section of Wilton Center sidewalk
Among the top priorities, Vanderslice also wants to see progress made in the planning for a domed sports facility at Comstock, and an assessment of needed work at other town-owned properties, including (but as Vanderslice says, not limited to) Town Hall, Town Hall Annex, Schenck’s Island, and Marvin Tavern.
Cellular Service Is Among Infrastructure Priorities
Another key infrastructure initiative Vanderslice is pursuing is to improve cellular service throughout the town.
As residents’ dependence on cell phones became evident during both the pandemic and extended power outages, Vanderslice says the number of complaints to the town has risen. Based on anecdotal evidence, BOS members also believe the lack of reliable cell service has been a factor that discourages interest from potential new residents.
“Cell phone infrastructure in Wilton has not kept pace with cell phone expansion,” Vanderslice told the BOS, either in terms of the increasing number of users or the capabilities of the phones.
“Increased cell phone usage means increased traffic between cell towers. Adding a monopole is similar to adding another lane on a road. A new monopole will provide cell traffic an additional/alternate route,” she added.
Vanderslice is exploring the possibility of a new monopole to be located behind the Bus Barn on School Rd., considered ideal for its obscurity from view and its reach to the various school and community complexes and other high-traffic areas along or near Danbury Rd.
Vanderslice emphasized that a monopole is not a “tower” like the one that is visible on Danbury Road near Diamond Deli. She also noted that while small cell installations are beneficial in high-density locations, monopoles are a more cost-effective way to reach the greatest number of people in lower-density areas.
She expects more details to be presented at the July 20 BOS meeting. The Connecticut Siting Council, a state agency that has jurisdiction over the siting of any telecommunications infrastructure, will have final say on the proposed location.
Still More Priorities
Vanderslice didn’t limit her list of priorities to buildings, roads or cellular service poles. Her other goals include:
- Continued expansion of online town services (e.g., online permitting)
- Continued collaboration with WestCOG (Western Connecticut Council of Governments) in terms of pursuing regional broadband (or alternative) capabilities and preparing required affordable housing plan documents
- Monitoring development activity before the Planning and Zoning Department and supporting P&Z efforts
- Integration into HRRA, working to modernize and improve the Transfer Station
- Maintaining the town’s high level of services in the most efficient manner possible
Do better internet service options/providers count as infrastructure improvements? This town needs it badly. Cell improvements are good, but we also need improved internet connections and choices for residences and businesses going forward.
We are lucky to have Lynn as Wilton’s Selectman. She always takes such a practical, sensible approach to both challenges and opportunities.
Put it all into the police building. The proposed cost of 16 million (as I recall) is way too high. A class A office building in Wilton with 90,000 square feet sold for 19 million a couple of years ago. That’s probably enough space for all town hall staff…let’s not repeat the Miller-Driscoll fiasco.
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