Town Leaders Talk Tough Economic Realities, Being Pro-Development at Tri-Board Meeting

Ahead of budget season, the Boards of Selectmen, Finance and Education get together to discuss balancing residents' needs for saving with maintaining what the town can offer.

Last week, in addition to meeting in executive session to discuss current litigation the town is facing, the Town of Wilton’s three main boards–Selectmen (BOS), Finance (BOF) and Education (BOE)–also met in open meeting to take a look at some data pulled together by First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice. The numbers–demographics, historical spending and economic impact on the community–were a jumping off point for town officials to prepare for budget season and discuss what town residents want, need–and can financially bear.

20-Year Perspective

Vanderslice prepared a 20-year perspective on how Wilton has experienced the economic factors of the last two decades.

Budgets, Taxing, Spending

In the years leading up to the recession, the actual tax levy (funds raised through taxes) grew at a high rate, the impact of which was somewhat offset by significant grand list growth.

  • From 2001 up until the recession in 2009, grand list growth was substantial–about 140%. This, Vanderslice said, allowed for a lot of spending by the town. To pay for that spending (i.e. budgets) during that time period, Wilton saw 79%–averaging just under 10% per year–in growth of the tax levy (money collected through taxes).

After the recession, the Town responded to the downturn by limiting what it asked its residents to pay in taxes. School and town budgets were reduced, and the town took on more debt. Making matters harder, grand list growth slowed significantly.

  • After the recession (2009 to 2014), tax levy growth was scaled back to just 15%–averaging just under 3% per year.
  • From 2015 to 2020, it scaled back even further to 10%–an average of 1.63% per a year. And we all know that.
  • Debt service increased with bonding the Miller-Driscoll Renovation, Comstock Community Center Renovation, and road paving projects
  • Wilton lost state grants for education and municipal help
  • Grand list growth fell 15.5% primarily due to declining values for residential properties and corporate office buildings

Vanderslice noted that post recession, residents didn’t advocate as hard for more spending–attendance at the Annual Town Meeting dropped and correspondence to the BOF slowed.

“I don’t think that was a surprise. When we presented the 2010 budget there was an auditorium full of residents angry at us, but then the next year they didn’t come back because I think people realized the reductions in their income that they had been seeing in the last couple of years didn’t come back,” she said.

Vanderslice said the 2018 BOF Survey of residents results demonstrated that there was limited resident support for tax increases.

  • 45% of respondents were opposed to even a 1% tax increase
  • 58% were opposed to a 2% tax increase
  • “only” 54% of residents with children in school were open to the 2% tax increase.
Population Demographics, Income and Home Prices

Vanderslice said that the same trends that necessitated a response in 2009 still continue.

  • Collective earnings continue to lag pre-recession earnings and recently declined from 2014 to 2017
  • Total population has begun to decline
  • Population continues to age
  • Prices for high valued and larger homes continue to decline, some as much as 60%.
  • FY2021 grand list growth will be stronger, but the next revaluation is only two years away with continued concerns about single-family home & corporate office building values
  • More people have moved away from Fairfield County than moved in–and income leaving exceeded income coming in.

She noted that while sales of homes over $1,000,000 has slowed (and their sale prices have dropped significantly), the sales of homes below that mark has increased. That has an impact on average resident income:  “It’s not a surprise that as the home values come down, the average income in this town comes down because those homes are more affordable.”

How to Respond–Meeting Resident Expectation and Provide Services

Vanderslice said she prepared the 20-year retrospective as background to what she hoped the board would discuss. “In light of the expectations that residents expressed in that BOF survey, how do we work together to meet residents’ expectations, deal with the reality of where we are, but still make sure that we’re properly funding the services we have to provide?”

She also noted that while the state of CT backed away from a previous proposal to require town contribution to the state’s pension program, it’s “probably likely” that the threat of that may return.

The BOF chair Jeff Rutishauser gave his view of how his board has approached budget increases–and how that may bode for this year’s budget process.

“In the past five years, the mill rate increase has been between 1.2% to 2%, in that range. Anytime a budget as submitted was above that, we cut the budgets to get down to that. The best guidance is what we’ve done in the past. If we’ve got budgets that go into 2% or greater, just look at the survey and you start to lose support real fast in the town,” he said, adding, “If it comes in above two [percent]…be prepared that it’ll probably be reduced because I think that’s what the town people have told us in that survey where they want to see the increase year over year.”

Rutishauser noted that with a housing market that’s still not that strong, Wilton is competing with neighboring towns for new residents. “If we start to have a tax growth in excess of them, those [residents] are going to go elsewhere. So we have to stay competitive with where our neighbors are holding their taxes.”

Looking at tax rate increases over the last five years, Wilton has been in the middle compared to surrounding towns. He gave some insight as to where the two other boards should aim when setting this year’s budget.

“That’s where we need to stay–at about 1.6-1.8%, depending on which numbers you look at. That’s where we have to come out this year. There is a challenge to get there–there always is. But that’s where the townspeople are going to expect us to be when we’re done with our mill rate discussions,” Rutishauser said.

Selectman Ross Tartell countered that there was a need to balance the need to look at mill rate and taxes with the need to meet expectations of what amenities residents want as well as investments in the town to help the grand list grow.

“The same [BOF] survey, but you talk to anybody, people move here because of the schools. And then the things you need to invest in to grow the town, because as the grand list grows then that reduces the pressure on mill rate. Then you have the things that support those strategies that help us be great. But it takes a lot of coordination, a lot of thinking through, how do you hit that sweet spot?”

Vanderslice said that an area the town “has to” keep an eye on is funding infrastructure needs. Those include buildings that need roofs replaced, bridges in need of repair, and roads that continue to need paving. With a target like the one Rutishauser mentioned, she said sacrifices might have to be made elsewhere.

“We’re putting that capital plan together. It’s going to be larger than we’d like to see, but we have to do it. So if we move forward on some of that and we’re increasing our debt service, it’s going to be tough to do those expense numbers without some changes in the way that we do things.”

Selectwoman Deb McFadden pointed out that the police station will be a big part of this year’s budget discussion. “It’s a critical piece of our infrastructure [that] we’ve neglected for a really long time–20 years.”

Rutishauser agreed. “It is well overdue.”

The Schools–Wilton’s Biggest Asset and Expense

Talk turned to Wilton’s Schools–beginning with what the needs will be driven by enrollment declines. Both Wilton and the state show decreases in enrollment projections for several years out.

“Over the last five or six years, we’ve been coming down 2.3% or 2.4%, thereabouts. So we’ve had a significant drop in student population and will continue to have a significant drop,” said BOF member Stewart Koenigsberg. He noted that with companies looking to attract a younger workforce moving out of CT to places like lower Manhattan, it may be unlikely in the future that families with school age children will be looking as much as they did in the past to move to CT–or Wilton.

But BOE member Ruth DeLuca said trends like that are cyclical.

“Companies may look at what their immediate workforce needs are, in about five, 10 years, those same people who were living in lower Manhattan are going to have two or three kids and are going to be looking for a place to live that can afford them a way to pay for college and a good public school education. Then those employer needs become different…It’s a fine needle to thread because you don’t want to make your services or educational program something that’s not going to be not only continuing to provide what we’re providing now, but also be able to continue down that path 10 years from now when the economy and trends turn the corner a bit.”

She suggested that perhaps Wilton needs more of a marketing and PR campaign “to get people to really see what Wilton has to offer compared to surrounding neighborhoods. I don’t think we do the best job in selling ourselves.”

BOF member Michael Kaelin agreed. “We really need to talk more about what makes this a great place to live and focus more on making it a great place to live. Nobody is moving to this town because our tax rate and overall tax pain is more generally better than the surrounding towns. You’ve got to give people a reason to go here.”

School Board chair Debbie Low listed the many things that the school district is implementing to keep moving the schools forward, including Cider Mill‘s facelift, the Library Learning Commons innovations toward a 21st century learning environment, social and emotional supports, keeping class sizes reasonable, and more.

“There are reasons that the Wilton Public Schools over the last umpteen years has built up a legacy of excellence and we need to protect that investment. And obviously that comes with costs. We have done a pretty good job–maybe not perfect and maybe there’s room to argue back and forth a bit–but if you look over the last few years, especially since the recession and with our new superintendent, our budget increases have been reasonable and maintained quality. It has moved us forward into the 21st century kind of learning. We can’t be the 1970s school district in 2020, we just can’t do that,” Low said.

She continued:  “We can argue over individual years and individual initiatives and individual buildings and all of that stuff. But I think we’ve done as a town a good balancing act in producing wonderful quality at a reasonable price in our schools. That’s a major driver of people moving here. In that survey 80% of the people are here for the schools. There’s lots of other great reasons and maybe we need to highlight them more, but the schools are a primary driver. So we’ve got to protect our investment by continuing a reasonable investment.”

Ways to Co-operate Between Boards 

Vanderslice said that there are still financial realities the boards have to face at budget time. So, she asked, “Are there things we can do together?”

“I have issues with space, you might have excess space. That’s kind of this whole practical conversation. This is a discussion about a budget and a capital plan that we feel is affordable for the town. If the police station is rejected, how do I find that space? What is the impact of your enrollment decline? That’s what we need to do in this discussion.”

Kaelin reiterated that it is also a matter of framing the conversation. “You can’t detach them. They have to be connected. Yes, we have the debt service on the Miller-Driscoll school, but we have a brand new beautiful Miller-Driscoll School. So when we’re talking about what we’re spending, I’m just suggesting we need to talk about what we’re getting in exchange for it.”

Low said the BOE has always been willing to work with the other boards–but she’s not sure about sharing space.

“How can we do our balancing? If you look at enrollment, it has gone down. I don’t think it’s going to continue to go down dramatically–that is not our latest numbers at all. Whether it frees up enough space to do anything else with, I don’t want to speak prematurely, but I doubt they’ll be lots of spaces to say, ‘Yes we can move a whole thing and stick it there.’ But that’s not to say we shouldn’t look at it and we shouldn’t study it, but I’m not sure our numbers really bear that out right now. We’re going to continue a slight, more downhill but not dramatic. That’s what I’m saying.”

She also pointed out the co-operation in recent years between the BOE and BOF with the Business Operations Subcommittee, and the effort to track quantitative data and metrics. That has helped the school district moderate spending, but keep up return on investment in quality it offers.

“We obviously want to work within any particular fiscal years constraints and realities. But we can’t back off the quality and you can’t back off and move forward in a way that will draw people here,” Low said.

Rutishauser acknowledged that both the BOE and BOF have made efforts to keep budget increases low–both coming in at about a 1% annual increase for the past five years.

“The operating divisions basically have done a marvelous job. We’re just saying, can we keep doing that marvelous job? It’s been tight for the past five years and you’ve responded–1% annualized, that should be a story out there. For the past five years you’ve both done a very good job. We don’t say that enough, but I think that’s a good point of departure.”

Vanderslice said it might be difficult sustaining that austerity–given that some of the town savings have come through not filling employee vacancies. Even by trying to share services with other towns or changes in health care plans to increase savings, future compromises would be hard to come by. It was a heads-up warning she wanted other town leaders–and the pubic–to hear.

“Eventually you run out of things to do that don’t begin to compromise quality on the town side. That’s really kind of the first time you’re hearing that from me. I don’t have a lot of those things for the future, I guess is what I’m saying. And I’m going to be bringing a lot of capital needs. That’s the reality,” she said.

McFadden said telling the positive story about the town is something all three boards’ members need to do.

“We’re ambassadors for this town and we need to have a really positive message about how great this town is. Whether you’re talking about schools or roads, police or the library, we have so much to offer. We have to figure out how to balance the budget, but that’s only part of our job. Another part of our job is to say, ‘Wow, look at how great our town is. Look at what we’re doing, look at what we’re accomplishing, look at who we are and look at the quality of life here.’ Yes, it’s important that we get the right numbers and get things through the annual town meeting and fund all of these things. But we need to keep what we’re doing in perspective and sometimes lift our head off the pages of the columns of the numbers with our sharp pencils where we’re trying to figure out how to save money here and there and and look at how great the town is and communicate that clearly, not only to the public, but remind each other.”

Trying to Project a “Pro-Development” Image

Vanderslice spoke to the group about supporting new projects and development that will help grow the commercial grand list. What she hoped people would understand is that they each play a role in helping get new projects through the development pipeline.

“The important takeaway is that economic development is the responsibility of everybody at this table. If we’re going to be recommending the spending of money and assuming some economic development’s going to happen to support that funding, then everybody has to take some ownership for that and be proactive,” she said.

In other words, she wants all of the town leaders to help project a more business-friendly image–and step forward to help support development efforts directly.

She used ASML as an example of a current commercial entity that has come before Planning & Zoning with several applications for expansion. “When an ASML was hiring and needs to expand, we should all think about supporting those applications.”

Vanderslice then pointed to a missed opportunity for economic development in a recent situation that didn’t work–the Brightview Senior Living development proposal for a 164-unit senior living facility on Pimpewaug Rd.. The application for the project fell apart when not only did some residents express opposition but the applicant sensed members of the Planning & Zoning Commission wouldn’t be supportive of the project.

“They left based on what they perceived as opposition. That could be as high as $750,000 a year in property taxes…The board of selectmen agreed…that there were a lot of positives about this. We are also concerned that if that wasn’t built then we could end up with an 8-30g there. It’s a lot of lands, you could get a seven-story apartment building or something. So we’ll see what ends up coming there next. Something is going to show up at that property and hopefully it’s not going to be an 8-30g,” Vanderslice said.

Her concern was echoed by Board of Finance chair Jeff Rutishauser, who works in commercial real estate. He agreed that Wilton had an anti-development reputation, and pointed to several potential developments from the last decade that encountered objection from the Wilton community:  183 Ridgefield Rd., 44 Westport Rd. and the Danbury Rd. Avalon II Apartments, which actually turned into a lawsuit and court trial.

“I think Lynne has done a good job trying to turn the impression of Wilton around from being anti-development from some of the folks that were here in the past that truly were anti-development. But things like this do need to be supported because the people right around all these properties are very vocal about it. What might benefit the town as a whole doesn’t necessarily benefit the people right adjacent to it. It’s called NIMBY and we all know what that means and that happens here,” Rutishauser said, referring to the acronym for ‘Not In My Backyard.’

He added that it’s important to do what’s best for Wilton as a whole.

“We have to do a better job attracting these people because they’re the ones that provide tax revenue fully in excess to the services that they draw. Those are the ones that will come and help us offload some of the tax burden off the residential sector.”

Vanderslice put it another way:  “We’re lucky that about 20% of our grand list is commercial. That’s a lot of tax dollars that they pay that residents don’t have to pay.”

Later in the meeting, she noted that the recently completed 10-year Plan of Conservation and Development is “much more economic development-driven than the one that was done before [in 2009].”

She also said that to capture development, Wilton needs to be receptive to the kinds of projects developers are looking to build now–which trends heavily toward senior living facilities.

“People say to me, ‘Why do people only want to build senior living communities in Wilton? We have enough.’ Well, that’s where the demand is–that’s what people are building. Towns are hungry for development and happy to have Brightview. They left [Wilton] because they had somewhere else where they thought they could go and have an easier process,” Vanderslice said.