Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) has been making its way through its annual budget planning process, making further progress at Tuesday night’s Feb. 15 special meeting.
Following the FY2023 budget overview presented in broad strokes by First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice at the Feb. 7 BOS meeting, the BOS took a deeper dive into the police and fire department components of the BOS budget. (Note: Some departmental budget discussions planned for the Feb. 9 BOS meeting were derailed by technical difficulties during the Zoom meeting. The Feb. 15 meeting picked up where the Feb. 9 meeting left off.)
The board also discussed a reduction in the salary of the first selectperson that would go into effect if and when a Town Administrator is hired — something the board members unanimously hoped would be soon.
WPD Chief John Lynch and WFD Chief Jim Blanchfield each gave a presentation outlining his department’s staffing needs and the rationale behind them. (Both presentation documents are posted online.)
Vanderslice emphasized the value of both presentations in demonstrating why the police and fire departments require the staffs they have.
Chief Lynch spoke first.
“We have 44 officers,” Lynch began. “Some people don’t understand… why we need that number.”
Lynch explained that Wilton’s residents are only part of the population the police force must serve. Wilton’s roughly 18,500 residents are augmented by a workforce population of 12,500 and 31,000 vehicle trips daily along the Route 7 corridor — and any of them can be involved in incidents requiring WPD response.
Lynch reported WPD responded to 11,456 incidents in 2021, including from traffic stops and motor vehicle accidents to alarm responses, deterrence runs and wide-ranging resident assistance efforts.
One chart in Lynch’s presentation provided detailed calculations on the number of patrol officers needed for 24/7 WPD patrols, factoring in sick days, vacation time, holidays, training and other factors.
“I love this chart. It lays it out,” Vanderslice said. “Add it all up and we’re at the [25 patrol] officers. This is the straight math at how you end up at 25.”
“We’re already budgeting [with] the expectation of 1.3 officer [full-time equivalent] in overtime,” Vanderslice noted. “If certain things increase, whether it’s because we have new apartment buildings with more residents or something else creates more volume, like the pandemic has… then it’s going to start pushing that up to the question of whether we need to go back to 45 officers.”
“We’re not saying we’re asking to increase the size of the department,” Vanderslice clarified. “But this [chart] is a good illustration that the department is stretched. One of the most common questions I get is why do we have so many police officers when ‘nothing happens in Wilton.’ [Lynch’s presentation showed] there’s plenty of things happening in Wilton.”
Selectman Bas Nabulsi questioned Lynch about the WPD budget “as Wilton moves forward with additional housing that is higher density,” including the possibility of more assisted living or other senior facilities in town.
Lynch responded that the impact of congregate housing has historically been “significant” and pointed out a simple reality.
“The more you build, the more need for [WPD] services,” Lynch said.
To illustrate the point, Vanderslice noted that a count of recently approved housing projects in Wilton and the applications currently under review total about 375 housing units.
“It’s an almost 6% increase in the number of housing units in Wilton. When those are fully built out — if they are — then we might be looking at changes in staffing requirements,” Vanderslice said.
Even a single domestic call can involve three officers for multiple hours, Lynch said.
“With the staffing we have now, we’re able to fulfill our obligations in keeping the public safe,” Lynch assured the board. “The higher the population, the more required services that we will need to provide. We would need to look at either increasing or at least maintaining the coverage we have now.”
WFD Chief Blanchfield also presented a case to justify WFD staffing levels, citing over 2,000 calls for service last year.
A staff of 30 is composed of 24 firefighting personnel (16 firefighters, four captains and four lieutenants) and six administrative personnel (a chief, deputy chief, fire marshal, deputy fire marshal, administrative assistant and apparatus supervisor).
To maintain 24/7 coverage at headquarters and Fire Station 2, six firefighters are needed for each shift.
Apart from fire-fighting, staff must perform a number of daily or routine functions, including equipment checks, public education programs, fire investigations, permit processing, ongoing training and recertifications, and others.
“Our days are full here,” Blanchfield said. “You run out of personnel very quickly at a fire scene.”
Reduction in First Selectperson Compensation
Vanderslice has been advocating for creating a new position and hiring a Town Administrator who would take over the management of the many day-to-day tasks she currently handles.
Vanderslice has emphasized that having a professional manager would benefit the Town in several ways, from the continuity of administration following changes in leadership to enabling the first selectperson to focus on more strategic issues.
Vanderslice has previously said she believes a reduction in the first selectperson’s salary would be warranted if a town administrator were added. She reiterated that position at the Feb. 15 meeting.
“If we are going to have the town administrator position in our budget, I very much recommend that we do reduce the salary of the first selectperson,” Vanderslice said.
For the FY2023 budget, Vanderslice has proposed a first selectperson’s salary of $113,400 — a reduction of $34,000 (or 23%) from the $147,400 salary that would have been budgeted without a Town Administrator.
She also revealed she routinely works over 60 hours a week.
“This isn’t about [a first selectperson] not being willing to do the work,” Vanderslice said. “It’s [about] a reasonable ask. Is it reasonable to expect a future first selectperson to work 60 to 80 hours a week, and do we even want to ask that of somebody, as a community?”
“It’s also about the scope of the job,” Selectman Ross Tartell responded. “The range of responsibilities required is far bigger than when Bill Brennan was first selectman. They take a significant amount of time and it’s a different mindset. There are two jobs there.”
“I do two jobs,” Vanderslice agreed. “I don’t complain, and I ran for reelection, but I’m looking at the future and being pragmatic in saying that we need to hire the town administrator position and also in the fact that there [would be] less of a scope and less of a demand on the first selectperson. That should be reflected in the compensation.”
The selectmen acknowledged the reduction in compensation was a difficult question, given that the Town Administrator position would be entirely new and the impact uncertain to some degree. They agreed to leave the door open to review the compensation with real-world experience after an administrator is hired.
Vanderslice said finding the right person for the administrator position is “critical.”
“It’s going to be a pretty special person who’s going to fit the job description, the scope of what we expect this person to be able to do,” Vanderslice said. “Hopefully we’ll find someone. In my mind it’s really critical to make sure it’s the right person. If it takes time, it takes time. There’s no compromise as far as I’m concerned on the Town Administrator.”
Resolving Selectmen’s Questions
The selectmen will vote whether to accept Vanderslice’s budget proposal as their own next Tuesday, Feb. 22. To inform their votes, the selectmen submitted written questions about some of the proposed numbers across departments.
All of their questions have been posted on the Town website. To provide a sense of how the selectmen are scrutinizing the budget, some of their key questions and answers are highlighted below (edited for brevity), along with Vanderslice’s answers and explanations:
- Ross Tartell: Is there enough money set aside for Fire Station 2 and headquarters repairs? Response: The budgeted amount ($102,000) is not for major projects. $200,000 was previously assigned in the fund balance for Fire Station 2 and was/is being used for completed, in-progress and scheduled work. Up to $100,000 has been approved from the Infrastructure Fund for the plan presented for the Fire Headquarters kitchen. Those materials are on order. Other project work will be presented at a future meeting as part of the prioritization of spending of the Infrastructure fund and ARPA monies.
- Ross Tartell: If the Town fails to fund the new police station, is that a risk to the budget? If it is not funded, there are wide-ranging negative impacts. Response: There is no FY2023 specific budget risk if the new station is not approved in May. If the referendum is defeated in May, we will likely put on hold all prioritized ARPA and Infrastructure Funds expenditures, and put the police headquarters on the November ballot. We would also decide whether to put the emergency radio system on the ballot. Doing so would provide us options in terms of ARPA funds should the police headquarters project not be approved, but the emergency radio system pass.
- Ross Tartell: In 2021, overtime was $702,571. Why is it so high and what steps are being put into place to mitigate the drivers of overtime? Response: Overtime was high and over budget due to shift coverage for officers out due to COVID. Overtime is forecasted to be over budget in FY2022 by approximately $100,000 due to higher than anticipated and planned-for retirements. Two positions remain vacant, which we hope to fill by April 1. Our ability to hire has been hampered by the statewide shortage of police officers. FY2023 salaries are forecasted to be underbudgeted by just over $200,000.
- Ross Tartell: Is part of the Community Affairs (part-time position) responsibility to support the work of the Economic Development Commission? Are there enough resources for what the position needs to do? Response: Part of the work is to support economic development through events and other means. This includes working with the Wilton Chamber, Wilton Library, Parks and Recreation, the Economic Commission and others. The position is currently coordinating with all of the above on summer events. In response to a request, at their last meeting the Commission indicated they did not plan to sponsor events. This position also provides support to boards and commissions through the Guide to Serving on Board and Commissions, answering questions about process or FOIA and conducting Survey Monkey surveys. In this regard, the position has provided frequent guidance to the EDC.
- Ross Tartell: In 2021 we changed the Inland Wetlands fee structure. How is it working? Response: In response to a concern raised by Mike Conklin, in 2021 the Board of Selectmen eliminated the additional activity fee which was a charge in addition to other wetland fees. At the time, Mike identified the fee as inconsistent with surrounding towns and thus put investors and residents at a disadvantage. We also noted the high rate of the additional fee could act as a deterrent to speaking with the department or properly filing for an Inland Wetlands permit before performing work. When we eliminated the fee, we were also communicating through the media and Town e-alerts about the need to speak with the Environmental Affairs Department before starting work to determine if a permit was needed. As such it is hard to say which had the greater impact, the reduction or the increased communication.
- Josh Cole: Is the $58,969 increase in DPW administration full-time salaries for the hiring of an additional engineer? Response: The change in salaries is the [net] result of three personnel changes. First, [former DPW director] Chris Burney’s salary was included in the FY2022 budget. Chris’s salary is budgeted in Construction Management for FY2023. Chris’s salary in FY2022 included the stipend paid by the BOE, so it is not comparable to [new DPW director] Frank Smeriglio‘s 2023 salary. Second, Frank’s salary as Asst. Director/Town Engineer is in the FY2022 budget. His replacement in the FY2023 will be an Asst. Director, but not the Town Engineer. Third, the addition of an engineer.
- Josh Cole: Is the $50,464 increase in DPW highways full-time salaries for contractual raises for existing employees or for a new hire? Response: The increase represents contractual raises plus a reorganization within the department. The reorganization, which had many operational benefits, resulted in higher wage increases as some individuals moved to positions with greater responsibility and were compensated for such. No new employees are proposed in the highway department.
- Josh Cole: Central Dispatch group insurance almost doubled from [the] prior year. Are we looking at alternative insurers or was this a one-time, expected premium increase? Response: The line item represents the cost of the state medical plan, net of employee contribution. The plan offers three options: employee only (at a cost of just over $12,000), employee plus one family member (approximately $26,000) and family ($32,000). Not all employees choose to participate in our plan as they may have coverage in another plan. That was the case with the employee who left in FY2021 and was replaced with an employee who chose to participate.
- Kim Healy: Why is the Registrar of Voters budget for printing, binding and publishing almost 100% increase? Response: Budget included cost of ballots and assumes Annual Town Meeting, November election and two state primaries. It also assumes a high rate of absentee ballots. The state previously provided a COVID grant to cover the increased cost associated with increased absentee ballots.
- Kim Healy: Why the large increase in DPW telephone for 2023? Response: Typically, Highway Supervisor and crew leaders have Town-issued cell phones. In January 2021, we gave cell phones to all of the highway department drivers because Town vehicle radio system is not in place yet and we need a way to communicate with all employees (during the workday and especially during snowstorms). Once the vehicle radio system is implemented, we will return to only have the highway supervisor and crew leaders with cell phones.
- Kim Healy: How are all the service contracts reviewed? Every department has many. Are there procedures in place to review all of them? Response: All purchases over $500 must have a purchase order. Purchase orders have approval levels depending on the amounts. Three bids or RFQs are required depending on the amount. Contracts over $10,000 must be approved by the Board of Selectmen, if budgeted.
- Kim Healy: If the early voting bill is voted in this November, do we have any idea of the financial impact it will have on the Town Clerk budget? Response: In the 2020 presidential election, we experienced a much higher rate of requests for absentee ballots and a higher rate of returned absentee ballots than was typical. The high rate of return was likely due to COVID. The high rate of requests was likely due to the Secretary of State mailing request forms to residents and COVID. The Town Clerk’s office incurred approximately $15,000 in temporary help for October and November. We consider 2020 unique and not indicative of what might occur in a non-COVID year. In the 2021 municipal election, we experienced a higher rate of requests and returned ballots than was typical, but at a much lower rate for each than in 2020. The Town Clerk did not need to hire temporary help. We don’t have enough data to estimate the financial impact of early voting.
BOS Budget Next Steps
- Tuesday, Feb. 22: BOS vote to approve final budget proposal
- March 24: Public hearing on the BOS budget proposal
- Tuesday, May 3, 7 p.m.: Annual Town Meeting at Clune Auditorium
Note: The Board of Education budget is also in progress, separate from the selectmen’s budget.
Unsure how the budget process works? Read our primer and look for GMW’s continuing coverage of the FY2023 budget process.