Trackside Brouhaha: Supporters Say Town Budget Cuts Threaten Teen Center’s Existence; Vanderslice Says COVID-19 Economy Requires Shared Sacrifice

On Sunday, May 10, a disagreement over Trackside Teen Center‘s budget erupted between supporters of the teen center and town officials.

On one side are Trackside board members who emailed supporters over the weekend with the subject line, “Urgent–Trackside Town Funding Cut.” Joining them are some residents, including two teens who started a petition to “Save Trackside.”

On the other side are town officials on the Board of Selectmen who are facing a Board of Finance asking for FY20201 budget numbers that reflect at best a flat budget from FY2020, and at worst a 10% decrease; and who point to an economic landscape with up to 20% unemployment in Wilton and significantly reduced town spending.

This will come to a head as the Board of Selectmen meets tonight, Monday, May 11, to adopt budget recommendations to present to the Board of Finance. Then on Tuesday, May 12, the Board of Finance will consider budget proposals from the BOS and the Board of Education before making a final decision during mill rate deliberations June 1-3. They will do so after input from residents–but without any formal Annual Town Meeting or vote, which has been canceled this year by a coronavirus-related executive order issued by the governor.

Trackside’s Take

Trackside’s board appealed to supporters and members of the public with its email on Sunday, asking residents to “Stop the Board of Selectmen from Defunding Trackside.”

They wrote that the original agreement between the town and Trackside’s first board is being disregarded by the current BOS. They say promises to support the organization made by town officials at Trackside’s start 18 years ago are now being abandoned. “As one we were once [sic] celebrated as Wilton’s first Public-Private Partnership, we are very disappointed and disheartened to see the drastic defunding levels in the latest budget proposal.”

When the BOS put together its first FY2021 budget in March–before the COVID-19 emergency–the selectmen had already proposed to reduce Trackside’s budget by $30,000. Now, with town officials looking to make significant reductions across the board, further cuts to Trackside’s town grant are being considered.

Trackside board members say they shared their FY2021 budget scenarios with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice along with “the great news of how our recently launched virtual programs are have been received and the great momentum we have in supporting [Wilton’s] vulnerable teens and tweens.”

They say the BOS’s best-case flat budget would mean an additional $10,000 reduction, which would reduce the $98,000 grant Trackside has received for each of the past two years, to $55,334 for FY2021. The worst-case budget scenarios, they say, would mean “a complete elimination of financial support for Trackside. This would result in an [sic] 30% loss of the revenue we depend on to provide services for your kids and for the broader community at our award-winning facility.”

Because of the closures due to COVID-19, Trackside has had to cancel fundraisers and has lost additional revenue from rental events. As a result, say board members, “Trackside’s very existence is threatened.”

They’ve asked supporters to email the BOS to continue funding the organization. In addition, two Middlebrook 8th graders, Shayna Wilson-Spiro and Sayuki Layne launched an online petition, which as of press time, has received 55 signatures toward its goal of 1,000. The girls wrote:

“Trackside is one of the most valuable things that Wilton has to offer to teens. At any given moment, Trackside has something for kids to do:  trivia nights, game nights, movie nights, videogame tournaments, and open mic nights are offered almost weekly. Additionally, Trackside supports positive messages and encourages empowerment. A place where everyone can feel safe, many kids regularly go there after school. Trackside is also a rentable space for summer camps and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Whenever me and my friends go there, we are sure to have fun. Unfortunately, Trackside is being threatened by a proposed funding cut by the Wilton Board of Selectman. Sign this petition to help save this treasure.”

Last night, Wilton parent Lara Paschalidis emailed GOOD Morning Wilton to support Trackside’s appeal. “My kids are a part of several programs and love the events they put on. It is a safe place that they can walk into and be who they want to be. It is a place our town should not only fund but stand behind to give our teenagers a safe place to make good choices,” she wrote.

The Board of Selectmen’s Side

Vanderslice addressed the disagreement in her nightly update on Sunday evening. She wrote that she received a number of emails from residents concerned about possible cuts to town grants for Trackside and the Wilton Library, and understands those concerns as “a donor to both organizations.” But, she wrote, the town is at a time which, “Unfortunately… may require shared sacrifices.”

Vanderslice explained that the coronavirus pandemic has caused the town to face additional expenses it didn’t previously expect for the FY2021 budget. She also noted that the Board of Finance is concerned about possible economic hardship for the town from the health crisis, and has asked the BOS to propose alternative budget options:  flat to FY2020 as well as showing reductions totaling and -2%, -5% and -10%.

“The Board of Finance, which is responsible for setting the FY2021 budget, has expressed concerns about residents’ ability to pay property taxes, Town liquidity issues if residents don’t pay their taxes, and the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic,” she wrote.

In preparing the new proposed budgets, Vanderslice said officials prioritized spending to adequately address the emergency and to ensure necessary services that serve the entire community will continue.

Vanderslice said the first cut made was to her own salary.

“The first recommended and voluntary reduction was a $30,000 or 21.6% cut to my salary, both as an act of leadership, but also as a reflection of the 15% to 20% estimated current unemployment rate in Wilton and the loss of income happening in many Wilton households,” she wrote.

She said $757,000 additional cuts were made to what had originally been proposed for the town budget in March in order to reach the flat budget proposal. Those cuts include:  “reductions in services and the elimination of all new initiatives including Schenck’s Island and the clearing of the Norwalk River along River Road. A $56,000 proposed cut was made to the Library‘s previously approved grant and a proposed $10,000 cut to Trackside’s previously approved grant.”

Then Vanderslice explained what a 2% budget reduction would mean:  $1,271,000 would have to be cut from the previously submitted Town department budgets. That would “translate into reductions in employees; widespread reduction in employee hours; and further reductions in services; $157,000 in cuts to the Library grant; and $65,000 in cuts to the Trackside grant,” she wrote.

Vanderslice justified why the BOS budget prioritizes the library over Trackside:  “It services the entire community, while Trackside services a small segment of the community.”

She also told GMW that the BOS decided to make cuts to Trackside before cutting town employee salaries.

She said the decisions were not made lightly, by her or the town department heads. “No one wants to cut services and no one wants a reduction in pay, but we are in unprecedented times with much uncertainty.”

She provided links to the budget materials for Town Department reductionsWilton Library’s proposed budget revisions and Trackside’s proposed budget revisions.

History

Sunday evening, GMW reached out to Vanderslice to clarify some issues about what the Board of Selectmen has asked Trackside to consider since the original agreement was created. She responded with an explanation of how and why the town’s funding grant to the teen center has been reduced:

“During my years on the BOF from 2008 to 2015 and prior to joining the BOF, residents wrote or spoke publicly asking that the Trackside grant be eliminated. Those requests increased as the impact of the recession lingered. In the winter of FY2016, I had a conversation with the leadership of Trackside, indicating that I would recommend that they receive a pass in the FY2018 budget, but that they would need to provide a 5-year plan to reduce their dependence on the Town grant. At the time, the Town Grant was $154,000. This agreement was discussed during the BOS discussion’s of the FY2018 budget.

“The BOF disagreed with the BOS decision to delay reductions to the grant until FY2019. [It] voted to cut the Trackside grant line item of the BOS’s FY2018 budget. The BOS elected not to overturn [that] vote, which could have only been accomplished had we cut the $25,000 from another department’s budget. In FY2018, Trackside was given a grant of $125,920.

“As per the 5-year plan, the FY2019 grant was reduced to $98,000. You will remember that the FY2019 budget was developed in the winter of 2018, the first year that residents were no longer able to deduct their full property taxes. You might also recall the BOS urging residents to donate to non-profits as it was less costly for residents to donate directly to non-profits and receive a charitable deduction, than for the BOS to make a grant paid for with tax dollars, when the average taxpayer pays more than $15,000 in property taxes, well in excess of the amount allowed to be deducted for SALT.

“During FY2019, Trackside went through a number of changes. The BOS agreed to waive the required reduction to [its] grant for FY2020, with the understanding that the 5-year plan was still in place. A $98,000 grant was approved. A number of Town employees and I worked to facilitate the BOE’s rental of Trackside for the Genesis Program, expecting that it was beneficial for the school and the students and it would assist Trackside financially and [its] ability to absorb the additional grant reductions. As part of preparing the facility for the Genesis Program, the BOE paid for improvements within the building, some that benefit Trackside itself. The BOE is paying approximately $50,000 in rent.

“In preparing the FY2021 submitted budget, the BOS extended the 5-year plan to six years. A FY2021 grant of $65,334 or a $32,666 reduction was approved along with the expressed intention to reduce the grant by half in FY2022 and no grant in FY2023.

“Then the pandemic hit. New BOS FY2021 expenses are required to address the pandemic, unemployment in Wilton has hit levels not seen after the financial crisis, [and] there is great uncertainly about the economic future for the State and the country.

“In the two budget proposals prepared in response to the request from the BOF, everyone is sharing in the sacrifice–residents with a reduction in services and the suspension of the highly popular Norwalk River/Wilton Center project, Town employees, the Library and Trackside. As far as Trackside:

      • In the flat scenario, they are still on the extended 6-year plan, though their budget was further reduced by $10,000 to $55,334, with the expectation that the amount will be reduced by half in FY2022 and no grant awarded in FY2023.
      • To achieve a 2% reduction to the FY2021 budget, while adding the additional new costs, means the cuts to town departments would be significant and only achieved through employee compensation reductions. At our meeting last week, the BOS members supported the $30,000 reduction to my compensation but provided instructions that cuts to Trackside should occur before wage cuts to other Town employees. The Trackside grant was eliminated, which minimized the cuts to employee compensation.

Vanderslice also gave her perspective on whether the town has deviated from the original agreement made with Trackside’s founders two decades ago. Current-day economic realities and social/cultural norms are different than what the situation was when Trackside was started, she explained, and managing what that means for the town’s budget is what her job entails.

“Due to my role with A Better Chance (ABC) of Wilton, I was actively involved with the teen community in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Trackside came about. Many of the people involved with starting the Teen Center were either colleagues on the ABC Board or ABC financial supporters. I wasn’t involved with the formation of the Teen Center, but I was asked to donate, which I did.  Because of that initial interest, I have always followed the Teen Center.

“The agreement between the Town and the Teen Center indicates that the BOS may decide to provide a grant to the Teen Center for employee costs, but there is no obligation to do so. The Teen Center began as a place for high school students. At the time, surveys indicated high levels of alcohol abuse and increasing levels of drug abuse, and school dances were encountering problems with binge drinking. Other towns had Teen Centers. Westport’s Teen Center was a popular weekend spot for student bands. It was felt that the Teen Center could provide an alcohol-free environment for Wilton High School students. The late 90s and early 2000s were also a time of high budget increases fueled by a growing mill rate and booming home prices.

“Much has changed. Home prices have retreated, many to prices that are lower than in the early 2000s when Trackside was opened. Total Wilton incomes have not returned to the pre-recession levels. Most area Teen Centers have closed because they are no longer as attractive to teens as they were in the 1990s and they have not been able to be financially viable.

“No one in the early 2000s had any idea that we would find ourselves in this situation in FY2021.

“Most of the decision making in these budget scenarios is difficult, but my job, and that of the Board of Selectmen is to lead the Town in through the current day’s realities.”

Editor’s note:  Late Sunday night we exchanged emails with a Trackside board member and asked for the opportunity to speak with Trackside representatives. The story will be updated further when we are able to do so.