Here we go again, everyone. After last night’s live blog, we’re live blogging again.

7:33 PM  Jeff Rutishauser has opened the hearing.

“Adding new development and wealth eases the taxes for the rest of us. It’s important as a town to be more open to this.”

Typically the BoS come in with a 2.5% increase; this year’s 0% increase means that next year will be working from a 2.5% lowered base. This is important that it gave the town a perpetual 2.5% decrease going forward.

We recognize the fiscal discipline of the Bd. of Selectmen.

7:38 PM  Editor’s note:  I will try to simplify and not repeat last night’s introduction of the budget hearing. For reference to the BoF presentation, see last night’s live blog or look on the town’s website for the video broadcast.

7:48 PM  Significantly fewer residents have shown up to tonight’s BoF budget hearing.

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7:49 PM Rutishauser addressed last night’s statement by Bruce Likly who said that the tax increase proposed no more than $300 for the owner of a $1.3 million home. Rutishauser said it’s more like $600 over last year’s tax bill. While some in town can absorb this tax increase, many cannot. Some are on fixed incomes. It’s not less than $1 a day, it’s a whole lot more if you plan on living in Wilton a while. And that builds every year.

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7:51 PM Lynne Vanderslice, first selectman: “I recognize this budget is not as popular as last night’s education budget, so I appreciate you for coming out.”

We have an excellent group of town employees. They’re professional, knowledgable, and I’ve benefitted that they are on top of the game. Thank you for being here and for what you do year round.

Wilton’s demographics:  The Average age is just over 42 years old, and it’s up because the growth in number of people 55+. “Wilton is getting older.”

WE have a fairly tight housing market, 64%  “We don’t have the inventory of the multimillion dollar homes that Darien, New Canaan and Westport does.”

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BoS is requesting $32,414,880. It is a $17,315 decrease vs. the FY 16 budget.

Variances between this year and last year

  • increase in wages due to contracts –general wage and step increases
  • increase in wages due to FY16 short term vacancies filled for 2017
  • Decrease in budgeted retirement costs due to increased number of employees on defined contribution plan and a good number of long term employees whose retirement is fully funded
  • Decrease in Legal Expense Budget due to efforts to minimize litigation. “Those expenses have been extraordinarily high this year.” There have been some you’ve known about and others related to tax appeals. “Things are beginning to settle down.”

Initiatives impacting future expense growth

  • Every job vacancy is being examined to justify replacements
  • Formation of an IS advisory working group to review the information services department
  • Outreach to facilitate the formation of a public/private partnership to fundraise and develop new revenues to fund future enhancements to athletic facilities “Like the group who wants to turf the Middlebrook field.”
  • Discussions with BoE to identify future joint cost savings
  • Conversations with area first selectmen about area joint cost savings initiatives. “We’re constantly looking at ways to save money.”

Operating Capital Requests

There isn’t anything that’s particularly unusual. Perhaps the only is that with the assessor, the revaluation costs us about $400,000. That process starts soon.

We try to spread those costs out so we don’t have a major impact on the mil rate.

This year was a change:  we’re going to go for used vehicles for department cars. Chief Crosby said he had a car for the Health Dept. and that was the first $20,000 savings.

Bonded Capital Requests–both will be bonded with a 10-year payback, not a typical 20-year payback.

  • Year 5 of the 5-year paving program. There are still a lot of roads that are still in bad shape after this is done. “We still have a catch up to do.” ($1,800,000)
  • Replacement of the 10+ year old stadium crumb rubber infill turf with a new coconut husk infill turf plus concussion padding ($650,000) It’s safer and more environmental.” We’re bonding this now because when it was put in 10 years ago, we didn’t prepare for its replacement. We’re going to put together a fund, for renting the field and for private donations.

Projects done:

  • Comstock:  It’s been empty because it’s just finished construction. Spring programs are starting again, and by summer it will be up to full running.
  • Miller Driscoll, $5 million in contract savings, and carefully watching $3.4 million in contingency
  • Fire station 2 renovation:  a committee has been formed
  • Police station:  the current building was built for 27 officers. We are all in agreement the department needs more space. We’ll have our first meeting in April.

Current and future non-bonded initiatives

  • NRVT
  • Scheck’s Island:  Proposal for invasive species removal (we’ll be able to see the river better), and Planned evaluation of additional uses to get more people there.
  • Evaluation of Merwin Meadows
  • Evaluation of senior tax relief. Participation has declined. We didn’t use all the money we put aside in 2016.  We are revitalizing the committee that looked at this in 2008-2009.
  • Assess town-owned land and properties. Are we maximizing value? Town Hall energy inefficiencies are among that. “We’re just throwing our money out the walls and windows.”

Initiative to grow the grand list

  • Proposals for Zoning regulation changes
  • Meet with and encourage prospective developers
  • Efforts to encourage public support for new development of office or alternative housing projects (for example the possibility of an office building going in where Young’s Nursery is closing)
  • Revitalization of and support for the Economic Development Commission:  The BoS has made a strong commitment to that group.
  • Improving access to information for Prospective Residents:  “The little things matter.” with improvements to Town website, and adding a “Thinking of Moving to Wilton” link

Summary:

  • the budget is Flat
  • Pursuing cost savings inititiative
  • focused on improving taxpayer perception of value on their dollar
  • focused on efforts to grow the grand list

Public Comment

8:11 PM Tom Curtin:  I’ve asked this question before:  it has to do with the perception that there’s a spend without end mentality. No sooner that Lynne was voted into office, certain selectmen voted to give her an increase. She declined appropriately. How in the world can you give an increase to someone who hasn’t started?  Like last night, the superintendent calling for a 2.7% increase for all administrators.

8:12 PM  Lynne:  I don’t think the question is for me, I gave the raise back.

Mike Kaelin:  I’ve answered this before, in the media right after we voted to give her the raise. It was not for Lynne, it was for the position of 1st selectmen. Because the compensation for our 1st selectman is completely not competitive. You can not hire someone to serve as our first selectman who is otherwise employed. Also, we do not provide retirement benefits, which is an impediment for someone to go for the job. The other thing, in the town of Wilton, you’re getting two for the price of one. When you compare it to towns like New Canaan and Darien, they also have a town manager who makes more than the 1st selectman.

The 1st selectmen that we’ve had and have, are outstanding, they’ve made personal sacrifices. Lynne deserves it.

Jeff:  We’re answering questions tonight, even though we didn’t last night, because we have fewer people asking and fewer questions tonight.

Ken McCollum:  Taxes are too high so people won’t be able to stay and younger people won’t be able to move here. When I moved here my taxes increased 46% when the value has increased only 34%. There’s an issue of affordability here.

Some older people said to the younger people who were rah rah for the school budget, you’re paying $15,000 now, it will be more years from now.

It would be great to have a PDF document online.  I support the capital budget. The amount being bonded for roads is too low. One portion of Thunder Lake is over 40 years old and has never been touched. DPW does a tremendous job with the resources they’ve got. It’s silly when we have Parks and Rec with a 1990s mower; or Public Works has a 20 year old sweeper that they’re able to keep in operation.

The organizations that are getting funding, there was a reference to the town assisting the NRVT with building portions of the trail and the parking lot. I’m wondering where the expenditure is coming from when town employees help, like on Horseshoe Pond or the new parking lot? I don’t see that in the budget.

Lynne:  The reason they were able to help with Horseshoe pond was because we had a mild winter and the DPW had the time. With the Library, a town typically has a library, ours is a non-profit. We only pick up 75% of the cost, other towns pay for 100%.

Ross Tartell:  There are fewer people here tonight than at a Wilton Historical Society lecture and people need to come out to vote.

As a private citizen, what’s Wilton’s differential competitive advantage? There are some things in Wilton that differentiate us from other towns in the region.

  1. The schools.  You saw the type of support. When the schools are threatened, people come out. They moved here for the schools. It’s a stake in the ground if we don’t invest in, we eat our seed corn and we don’t have our future.
  2. People don’t talk about the culture, but it’s a town that says, “If you see something, you better do something.” People volunteer, they step up and donate their time. They create a climate here that’s remarkable.
  3. Very few people in this room can point out political parties of the board members sitting here. This is a town that works, and separates us from the average town in America. It’s also the people who work for the town, every single person cares deeply for the town.

We have issues:  We don’t have a central street. We don’t have a business/shopping district. I have confidence with the people who volunteer we can make a difference.

Also Tartell speaks in favor of improving the fire station 2.

John Schiaroli:  I’m happy to extend expertise in negotiating and budgeting. And I commend you on showing strategic thought.

Alex Ruskewich:  I”m not here to complain tonight. What’s been done is significantly better than we’ve had in the past.

I do have some concerns and observations:  When you start studying elderly tax relief. They have not had any change since 2009. If you look at the tax increases since 2009 have eaten away any tax relief they have gotten. The elderly deserve an extra treatment in this town. We have to do something for the elderly people in town.

Also, you said the capital plan would start to go down. I’ve never seen it go down. When it does, another project comes in. We’ve heard of two today:  The fire station and the police station. I’m not optimistic that we’ll have a reduction in the debt service as we go along.

Third, recently some houses I found on zillow lost $145,000 and $369,000 from the time they bought and the time they sold. When you do the revaluation, that will hit the people at the bottom. The big houses will have a big revaluation, and the elderly are going to get hit with increases and tax increases from the revaluation.

I appreciate the effort.

Moses Alexander:  The focus on efforts to grow the grand list, what I hear around town, people are not so pro-development. There’s a lot of anti-sentiment about it. That said, growing the grand list is not keeping the budget in-check. If there is a problem in town, when you have an increase, it’s not just this year, it’s every year.

In the 90s when we grew the budget, it was because the grand list was growing. There should have been scrutiny then as there is now.

Deborah McFadden:  We need to grow the grand list. We need to be proactive on identifying our brand. It may take an attitude shift as a community, but I think we can do it that’s sensitive to who we are as a community, respecting the history and open space. There’s a big mall opening in Norwalk; if we think we have open storefronts now, wait until that comes in.

Tax relief for the elderly is very important.

I think attendance last night reflects the better communication from the town.

The public-private partnerships are essential in this town. Expanding them in the athletic area is really smart.

We need to do more collaboration with other communities and regionalization. As you’re looking at the fire station, we need to look at what our true needs are. We need something in the North Wilton area, but is the current location the right one? Can we work with Ridgefield.

I see the needs at Town Hall and the Police Station. Although our debt service may be peaking and coming down, we do have things coming that have to be addressed. When town employees have to cover their desks with plastic because they’re afraid a rainstorm will make leaks in Town Hall, we need to address that.

We get value for our money compared to other communities.

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Mark Russell:  I want to thank Mr. Kress and Mr. Balderston for what they’ve written, and I compare it to Bruce Likly’s scare tactics, and I thank Warren Serenbetz for calling him out.

Looking at economics in Fairfield County, we’re looking at an increase of 2.27%. You’ve described a lower cost baseline. If we now look at the tax increase of $600, it seems small, but it will happen every year. That increase will stay there each year.

I know last night was a group of cheerleaders and ‘we love education’.

Steve Hudspeth: I see a positive thing about the last two nights:  I’ve heard more thoughtful, civil conversation than I’ve heard in a long time. I appreciate the thought, energy and kindness that went into it. What Alex Ruskewich said about seniors, I take that very much to heart.

I also look at the question of what our future is. You can look as it as dark, bleak and uncertain. Or you can look at it as our future is what we make of it. We are bright able bunch. If we need to get new businesses, we can. And the finances will follow.

I know people on the BoF sometimes disagree with that view. I ask:  if one is an optimist and believes what I said about the future, is there a prudent and reasonable way, without damaging the AAA rating, and keeping our 10% cushion, can we reach into that and keep it at what Bruce estimated at $300? As an optimist I hope we think about the future of this town.

I’m delighted about the environmentally friendly way you’re planning to return. I went to Comstock for a CERT meeting and the place was full! Those are things that are smart for a town. There is nothing smarter than investing in education, for a town like ours.

When you look at our schools and the quality of what we have, and you look at what happens if you allow not investing in them, over many years, you destroy a gem that you don’t rebuild. You lose it. If you try to rebuild, you spend decades to do it. It’s not in any of our interests, our financial interests, to the service of our children, to the service of the town, and the service of our future. We are a town that ‘does.’

I implore you to please, don’t shortchange that in which we invest. Not only our finances, but our heart and our future.

Sarah Curtis:  Thank you to the Board of Finance, there was a spirit of problem solving and cooperation. I also saw that same spirit with the Board of Selectmen. In just a couple months, we’ve come a long way. Thank you for your hard work. I watched the dialogue with many departments, Parks & Rec, the Police, what have you, there was looking for efficiencies and wanting to do a great job.

I can’t say the same for the Board of Ed. I was disappointed and insulted with the budget they brought forward. It was, “here it is, deal with it.” The attitude I saw of them working with the BoF it was joking and inappropriate. I didn’t see the level of cooperation as with the other departments.

Part of the disservice of the BoE is that we want to invest in the great things and in our education system and the great programs. But their failure to look for efficiencies, the failure to work the budget, and the budget they came forward with, that is the very thing that will do the most damage in the long run. We should be able to find efficiencies that will add value, whether in arts, technology, gifted programs. We heard parents support that last night as we should. But in terms of their approach the BoE continues to not get it.

I would have loved to hear from people that they came to join our community. I’ve lived here 65 years. I’ve invested in this community. My parents invested for generations. We didn’t just drop in for the schools for a while and then pack up and leave. There are different attitudes.

One of my concerns is with public-private partnerships, I think we should be very careful on how we manage them. Especially when there are special interest groups within the town that, looking at public private partnerships, we have to be careful with what we do with that.

My elder parents benefitted from the senior tax relief, there are things that can be done. I was always surprised with the threshold of residency. Maybe there is something that can be done to help the seniors who have been here decade after decade, rather than someone who has come within the last year or two.

Tom Curtin:  My comments:  I would not want to sit in any of your chairs. I cannot fathom what you have to do. You’re on the right track. People have been saying it’s moving in the right direction.

I’m an optimist, but I have to tell you, there are people saying we have problems. One problem we have is taxes. The BoF did a smart thing listening to the realtors. They’re not buying houses here. Every realtor said we don’t have the value for the money.

Another problem we have are the millennials. Are we delivering what they want, because they’re the ones who are buying the houses, and if we don’t have what they want they won’t come.

Bond more money for the roads. You want people to come to the town, they need to drive on smooth roads.

What to do with marketing the town? There is a lot of talent in the town, to get people to fill the empty stores. Use the Clune center for events. What do we have on the town green…a chair?

We’re in a bit of trouble, and we need to wake up and fix it. And I volunteer.

Ed Papp:  Thanks again for your service. Mike Kaelin, you’re wrong. We didn’t get Lynne, two people for the price of one. She’s three or four. She’s done a marvelous job and off to a great start.

But $32,000,000. The town and school budget have gone up at the same rate, more or less. The town doesn’t have to deal with special ed mandates or unions the way the school does, so I’m of the opinion there’s fat in the BoS budget. I think you’ve identified some, I think you’ll find more.

The fiber optic boondoggle; we have two police officers who were supposed to be temporary for the expansion of Rte. 7, yet we still have them.

Wilton is one of the highest taxed towns in a bankrupt state. Hartford is laying people off. I’m not saying lay people off, but each time someone resigns, don’t replace them. That’s zero-based budgeting.

Our taxes are now twice what they have been. Services haven’t changed. I think we should postpone as many of the capital projects until we can start paying down some of our debt. Last year the previous administration dug in deep to the reserves. We have to rebuild those reserves, or we’ll lose our AAA.

Patty Temple:  Thank you for the tone you’ve set since you’ve been in office. It’s exciting seeing the initiatives. I look at that as a fresh start to doing something for amenities that we don’t have.

I don’t necessarily disagree with you Ed, but this zero-percent growth is really a big deal. Thank you.

Paul Hannah:  My comments are on the mil rate model. The ending fund balance, you’re proposing $14 million. 11.2% of the operating budget. That’s in my view an emense amount. 10-15 years ago we got around with 4-6% of the operating balance for the ending fund balance. The argument will be made if you cut this down, you’ll lose the AAA rating. 9.2% it’s not going to happen. If you lose 20 basis points on the interest rate, on $50 million, that’s $8/person.

I’ve done the numbers, I sent you an email, I suggest you cut that to 9.2% percent. With the charter authority, you’ll have a contingency of 10.2%. My view is that’s sufficient. If you can come to a rational review on the ending fund balance, and the BoE can cut to the 1.1% increase “guidance” you asked them to come in on, if you do that, you can have a year to year flat tax. No mil rate increase. I hope you’ll consider doing that. There is no need, we all know how good Moody’s is. It’s not necessary in this town, it’s not necessary to operate conservatively, it’s not necessary to keep the AAA.

We did it 15 years ago, we can do it now.

9:24 PM The meeting concludes.