Trackside Officials Make Final Plea for Restored Funding

Yesterday, GMW published an article about a disagreement between town leadership and Trackside Teen Center officials over this year’s proposed budget grant from the town to the non-profit. Anticipating difficult economic factors since the COVID emergency, the Board of Finance has asked the Board of Selectmen to prepare FY2021 budget scenarios reflecting a flat (0%) increase over FY2020, as well as scenarios with decreases of 2%, 5% and 10%.

Before COVID, the BOS had reduced its grant to Trackside, from $98,000 to $65,000. Trackside provided an “optimistic budget” that looked to bring in a total of $300,000 in revenues, including that town grant.

But now, in the town’s post-COVID budget scenarios, the BOS has proposed cutting Trackside’s FY2020 grant another $10,000 to $55,344 in the flat (0%) scenario.

If the BOF decides to opt for any of the more drastic scenarios, Trackside would receive no grant at all, but would have to rely solely on its own fundraising and other revenue-generating efforts.

After yesterday’s article about potential major cuts by town officials to Trackside Teen Center’s budget, the non-profit’s executive director Cindy Moser and board president Forrest Close provided additional insight to their board’s position: they want to persuade the Board of Selectmen (BOS) to make cuts somewhere else in the proposed town budget rather than reduce the Trackside grant.

The interview has been condensed for clarity and brevity.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  What is your response to what you read Monday morning, what First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said about cutting Trackside’s budget?

Forrest Close:  We’re very disappointed in the absolute cut that we’ve taken from our 2020 budget. Our 2020 grant was $98,000. And the BOS for a while now has wanted us to become more self-sufficient. That started a few years ago when we went from $154,000 down to $125,000; last year was at $98,000, and then this year, after requesting the same $98,000 we were cut down to $65,000, which we made work.

Cindy has worked very hard and put together a budget that makes us work on $65,000 with increased fundraising, mostly.

Now of course in a COVID-19 world that’s also changed dramatically. Cindy put together a budget and a plan for Trackside for a couple of different scenarios going forward over the next year, depending on what COVID brings. There’s one scenario that has us opening with school and continuing to stay open; then there is another scenario where we are opening with school [but] there’s a second wave and we have to close in two months.

For each of those scenarios, the budget has been drastically reduced from last year’s. Cindy, what’s the difference in the budget from last year to the optimistic scenario? I think it’s $360,000, down to about $300,000.

Cindy Moser:  I actually think they’re both below $300,000–they’re in the $260,000 and below range.

[Editor’s Note:  Vanderslice provided the budgets that were submitted to the BOS.]

Close:  So Trackside has cut its budget significantly in response to a COVID world. Now that is with the town giving us the $65,000, which represented a 33% cut from the previous year.

Now the town would like to cut off an additional 10%, which in effect makes a 45-50% reduction over last year. [Editor’s note:  It would be a 43.5% cut.]

We want to obviously do our part in response to COVID and what the town has to do. We just believe that the cut that we initially took, which was devastating enough, to add another $10,000 to that cut–although in the big scheme of things, the budget for the town is $33 million and they’re looking to cut like 1.2%, I guess, was the number which keeps them “flat” over the year before–I would argue that $10,000 is obviously a huge percentage of our budget… of our grant, let’s just say; and basis points off of the town’s budget.  [Editor’s note:  $10,000 is 15.3% of the $65,334 grant; it is 3.33% of the “optimistic” budget scenario and 4.5% of the “second wave” budget scenario.]

Now we don’t like to have to do what I’m about to do, but we are constantly compared to the Wilton Library by the Board of Selectmen and by Lynne. We’re thrown in the bucket with the library because the two of us–discretionary funds, I guess, is the way they think about us. ‘It’s not crucial.’ We’re not talking about town services obviously. We–Trackside–we do not want to have to compare ourselves to the library. First of all, it’s apples and oranges. The library serves a huge portion of the community; we don’t serve a huge portion directly, but we would argue that we serve the community as a whole.

So the long and the short of it is that the library, after the proposed COVID cut would be receiving $5,000 less than what they received in the 2020 budget. In the 2020 budget, they received $2,802,000; in the revised proposed COVID budget, they’re receiving $2,797,000. So with COVID, they’re taking a $5,000 reduction over 2020’s budget while Trackside is taking a $55,000 cut year over year, which represents 50% of our budget.

[Editor’s note:  I believe Close confuses numbers here:  The BOS proposes to cut $42,656 from Trackside’s proposed grant request, or 43.5%.]

GMW:  Two minutes ago you said it’s apples and oranges to compare Trackside and the Library, so for you to compare yourself to the library–

Close:  Well, it is apples and oranges, but whenever it gets brought up, [the BOS members] categorize us as the same–sort of discretionary grants. Correct me if I’m wrong, Cindy, but is there anybody else that they consider a grant the way they consider the library and us a grant?

Moser:  In the past they have also provided some grant funding of sorts to Ambler Farm.

GMW:  Ambler Farm was given as a land grant from the Ambler Trust to the town. As I understand it, the town only pays for the upkeep of the buildings. Everything else is covered by the Friends of Ambler Farm’s own programs.

Moser:  That’s still funding on behalf of the town, given to a nonprofit in one way, shape or form.

GMW:  That relationship is mandated by a deed restriction on the land by the Ambler Trust. The only way that land stays undeveloped is if the town continues to maintain that relationship. So I don’t know that it’s fair to compare the two.

Moser:  That’s fine.

GMW:  The only other non-town department that receives funding from the town is Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps. But that’s health and safety and an emergency service the town is paying for, it’s completely different.

The Wilton Library and Trackside are the only public-private partnerships, that’s why the two of you get compared in that way.

Moser:  There’s some fairness, we understand that there’s a discretionary element. Trackside often isn’t given the credit it deserves for the amount of the population we do serve. If you look at the number of middle school and high school kids that come through our doors–this year we were over three times the prior year. We’ve had 500 kids come through our doors for various events and activities; if you compare that to the library you would potentially consider those families also as those we serve. So those 500 kids could easily blow out to a thousand or more in terms of individuals that we’re serving. And then we have over 3,000 people who use the facility through various rentals, and some of those are town events, which aren’t even rentals for us–they actually cost us money when the town uses our facility, which we have to permit. So, we’re servicing somewhere between 3,000-5,000 people a year.

But typically when the town looks at it in our budget and what we do for the town, they look at a small number, around maybe 100-200 kids. That’s unfair because we are servicing a much broader percentage of the population than we are being considered for. It seems like a small grant to us, which is huge for us and small overall. Maybe it’s small compared to the library. We’re still servicing a lot of the Wilton population.

Close:  For some context. I’ve been on the board for five years, this is my first year as president of the Board of Trackside. Since I’ve been on the board, the BOS has always been pressing us to become more self-sufficient, as evidenced by the grant cuts that have occurred over the last three or four years.

We have taken up that charge, we are becoming more and more self-sufficient. In 2020 our total budget was about $340,000, I believe. That $98,000 [town grant] is a 30-ish percent piece of the budget. Every year they instituted a 33% cut, down to $65,000 for this (FY2021) year. And we absorbed that and we are prepared to raise that money. So we are moving in that direction.

What we think is that if they continue to pull money away from us at this rate, it really feels like they’re pulling the rug out from under us, and not giving us a chance to fulfill that mandate to become more self-sufficient.

Moser:  Especially in the case with FY2021, a 2% or greater cut where our funding is completely eliminated.

Close:  It begs the question to be asked, quite frankly:  Does the Board of Selectmen believe in our mission and does the BOS want Wilton to have a teen center? The evidence continues to point to the fact that the BOS does not believe in our mission and that they could care less about the town having a teen center.

Lynne Vanderslice will tell you in the first sentence when talking about Trackside, that she is a private donor. That’s fine. And we appreciate that. We appreciate all of our private donors, obviously. But it kind of muddies the water because no private donor that we’ve found yet would be able to fill the hole in the budget if the town left.

GMW:  Since the BOS challenged you to become more independent, how have you grown your private fundraising to match that? Since you brought up the library, two years ago, the BOS challenged them with a matching grant challenge to fundraise $25,000 in order to get an additional $25,000 from the town–which they did successfully.

Moser:  To my knowledge, we haven’t been given the same. We haven’t been given any opportunities to earn back money that the town has.

GMW:  I’m not saying I agree or disagree, but I have to play devil’s advocate and asking those tough questions. Going back to fiscal year 2018, when the discussions with the BOS about Trackside becoming more financially independent…

Close:  There was a plan put to us in 2017 that really ramped up reductions…

GMW:  So, as a result, in that time, how has your fundraising push for private donors risen? How has that grown? What kind of efforts has Trackside done in terms of private fundraising? 

Editor’s note:  Moser supplied the information after our interview. Here’s what she wrote:

“Fiscal Year 2019, where we spent the majority of the year understaffed and undergoing leadership transitions for the staff and the Board of Directors, was certainly a challenge for the organization. As you can see, we have made positive strides in fundraising efforts in FY2020.

“We have had a 68% increase in private donations since last fiscal year and a 27% increase versus FY2017 when the most recent Town funding reduction began.

“We had also been on track for a record year with the fundraising events we had planned [for FY2020], each focused on helping engage and build a stronger Wilton Community. The COVID-19 closures have resulted in an estimated $14,000 Reduction in net fundraising event revenue for FY2020. Unfortunately, with the highly probable loss of the Food Truck Festival and most likely our large in-person event in the fall, we are having to account for another $20-25,000 that was in our original FY2021’s plans and projections.”

Moser also noted that “Trackside’s other revenue streams are our Facility Rentals and our Program and Event Fees,” which likely will be hurt from COVID-19 fallout.

Close:  If you go back to the [grant reduction to] $65,000, which we’ve digested, that’s a $90,000 cut [from $154,000] over however many fiscal years. So I would say we’re doing our part.

GMW:  Again, so I get the timing of all of this, in 2017 Trackside was asked to have a five-year plan for eventually in five years getting down to zero, no grant from the town, correct? 

Close:  That was the plan put to us. I would argue that it was not feasible. But that was the plan put to us and, of course, we didn’t have a lot say in the matter. The [Trackside] board was under a different administration, so I can’t speak to those discussions myself.

GMW:  Did that previous board not tell your current board? Did your board not understanding that was the plan that the town had begun to lay out for you?

Close:  No, no. I mean, I was a member of that [previous] board. I was brand new, so I was not a senior member of the board. So I did not partake in any of the discussions. The senior members of the board did of course, bring that to us and explain to us what it was, but there was no discussion or going back to the town with a counter proposition. It was just said that it is what it is and this is what we’re going to do.

I always felt personally–and I said this in the BOS meeting whenever it was I got up and spoke, that I never thought that it was feasible. I always felt that it was kicking the can down the road–like, “We’ll just take what we can get now and then we’ll worry about the rest later.”

GMW:  Who was kicking the can down the road–the Trackside board or the BOS? Who do you mean?

Close:  The previous Trackside board. Personal opinion, and I cannot speak for anybody else who was on that board, it never sounded feasible to me, but it didn’t really matter what I thought, quite frankly.

GMW:  Here’s what I’m hearing:  that town officials communicated, “Here’s what we want you to do–become financially independent.” And they kept to that plan. And now an unforeseen situation–COVID 19–created havoc economically, causing ripples throughout all of the town’s budgeting, including the way it’s impacting Trackside.

Are you hoping GMW will start the rallying cry that Trackside needs the BOS to put the funding back? Are you hoping town residents step up and say, “We want to help rescue Trackside and keep it in existence?”

Close:  We just want to make sure that people understand the disproportionality that is occurring here with regards to the COVID cut. The extenuating circumstances are, we took the 33% cut unrelated to COVID–we understand that and again, we digested that $33,000 cut. But it sort of feels like (to coin a phrase from Bugs Bunny) dogpile on the rabbit. I mean, they cut us the $33,000 and now they’re coming at us for an additional $10,000, which is a huge percentage of our budget. And we just feel that it’s disproportionate.

At the end of the day, like I said earlier, our budget got cut close to 50% year-over-year. I understand that most of that cut has to do with something else, but was it really necessary to take another $10,000 away from us? In the amount of money that we’re talking about in these cuts, was it really necessary to come to Trackside for another $10,000?

GMW:  What I also hear is the 250 other pages of budget and places where the cut needs to come from. When you have a Board of Finance who says to the Board of Selectmen, “We need to see numbers for flat, -2%, -5% and -10%,” so where would you suggest that cut to come from? That’s number one.

Number two, have you and your Board gone to the public and to your supporters to say, “We need an emergency $10,000. We were prepared to bite the bullet and tighten that belt. We prepared and planned like a responsible board. The BOS prepared us to cut, we prepared a budget in response anticipating only $65,000 but now another $10,000 is being cut, so can you help us?

Close:  Of course we’re prepared to do that. And if this goes through, we will do that.

Moser:  Even if you look at the wording of the email that went out to parents and supporters yesterday, it actually, not directly, but it indicates that the $10,000 cut, while it would be difficult, isn’t the nail in the coffin per se. It’s as soon as you look at the -2% reduction for the town funding, we go to zero. That’s the one [cut] that right now appears to be the one that we would have a very difficult time overcoming.

Now in no way, shape or form are we going to roll over, if that’s what the BOS decides–which we hope they don’t. We know they’ve gotten a lot of emails and appeals from the public in the last 24 hours. We’re not going to roll over and close our doors. We are going to do everything we can to continue to operate and tighten budgets more and continue additional fundraising and things.

We’ve been working on our plans to close those gaps over the next two years. Trying to do that in two months is a completely different scenario and challenge. But we’re not giving up on Trackside no matter what the BOS decides.

But the reality is, we were faced with the challenge with the original FY2021. Forrest and I spent over an hour on the phone with Lynne talking about the FY2021 budget cuts with COVID. We understand–we’d be willing to take our fair share of what it takes. But maybe there’s a very difference of opinion on what that fair share looks like.

We shared with her that if we get some unexpected funding that we don’t have in the budget or in the plans, we would be more than happy to go back to the town and give money back. We understand. But that complete reduction, it was extremely unexpected based on that phone conversation.

It could be the end of Trackside, based on a decision by the Board of Selectmen.

I know Lynne talks about changes in jobs or cuts. We’ve done the same–we’ve taken salary cuts, huge ones at times; we furloughed [programming director] Dr. [John] Priest for the month of April to help make ends meet. We have plans to do additional cuts and furloughs for the next year. If Trackside closes, it’s actually four jobs that are gone. So we understand that impact. Whether it’s salary cuts or other cuts here and there, you know, there’s a difference between willing to share and willing to feel like you take an unfair burden of what’s being looked at.

Close:  I’ll interject one other variable here. The Board of Ed[ucation] pays us $50,000 a year rent to run the Genesis Program for the high school. And whenever we speak about that with Lynne, we always make sure that they understand that it costs us about $25,000 to maintain the building while Genesis is in session. So over the course of the year, we’re netting, say, $25,000 from the relationship with Genesis.

Now if Trackside went away, that would be money the Board of Ed would need to step up if they wanted to continue to use that building. I understand they might not be paying rent but that’s another consideration with regards to us staying open, making it possible for the Board of Ed to continue Genesis there.

GMW:  Did the BOE pay for upgrades that were done before they moved in?

Moser:  They did, they put in a door, and they’ve replaced our furniture. We had to actually get rid of the vast majority of our furniture and the TVs and things that we had, and they brought their items in. Which put us at risk–if the BOE ever decides to pull out, those are costs that we would have to incur to replace. So it was a calculated risk on our part to go ahead and do that, to help serve a broad population of teens.

Part of the challenge that Lynne had for Trackside to become self-sufficient was to go find other ways to raise money. And through the rental agreement and in partnership with the BOE, we’re now penalized by people saying, “Well, you used to get X amount of money from the town and now when you look at the town funding plus the Board of Ed, you get just about the same amount of money.” We’re being penalized for having worked with the BOE, to service the Genesis program instead of doing private rentals. Which was a plan that I had in place to do more corporate rentals and private rentals during the daytime.

So it also seems to be an unfair consideration that Trackside is getting money from two different portions of the town when you’re reducing our reliance on the BOS grant.

GMW:  What would you suggest the town cut if it’s not going to cut the $10,000 from Trackside?

Moser:  Not to be callous about it, but that’s not our job. We wouldn’t have the first idea as to where an additional $10,000 could come from. That’s just not something that we would ever be able to know.

It’s really not mine and Forrest’s positions to recommend where the town funding, … we’re making the appeal not to take as much of a cut [from Trackside’s proposed budget] as they’re proposing.

I’m gonna reference back to when Forrest had his onboarding call with Lynne back in September when he became president of Trackside. At that time she shared with [him] that as long as residents weren’t calling for her to cut Trackside she didn’t see any reason to do so.

So now, if residents are coming back and making a call to continue to fund Trackside, we would hope that there’s equal consideration to that. Because we still have not heard from her or from anywhere on the BOS that the town and the residents were calling for Trackside’s funding to be cut. If that had happened, that would be news to us. So we would hope that she would pay consideration of the reverse if the public support that has come out, um, you know, in support of us. Right.

GMW:  Okay. I understand that it’s not your place to say where cuts should be made, but based on what Lynne Vanderslice told GMW, if the BOS is faced with a request for a 2% reduction from the flat, and the Board of Finance says we’re going to go with the 2% reduction from the flat. Then what that means is cutting town employees, cutting town services, $157,000 in total cuts to the library grant, and she’s already cutting $757,000 in cuts from what had been proposed in March.

So I know you can’t necessarily say, but somebody’s got to decide where that comes from.

I don’t know where the cuts will come from. I’m not saying that it should come from Trackside. I’m not saying it should come from the library. I don’t know where those cuts are coming from. If this is what the Board of Finance is asking for, you have to make the cuts.

Close:   Usually, people complain about the BOE. Every time we have our town meeting, it’s always the BOE that people complain about. So that’s where people are looking for the cuts.

GMW:  But that’s not the town budget. The town has to make its cuts and the Board of Education has to make its cuts. It’s separate.

Moser:  I feel like you’re trying to back us into a bit of a corner of saying where Trackside thinks the money should come from. And that’s not fair to us. It’s not fair to us as Trackside. It’s not fair to Forrest or me, as residents of this town, to be asked to make that kind of comment in this forum. If we want to go comment as private individuals on Facebook or through emails, that’s where we should make those types of comments. But not on behalf of Trackside. That’s a very unfair, uncomfortable position that I feel like you’re putting us in right now.

GMW:  I don’t mean to put you in that position. But I don’t know where else that answer comes from.

Moser:  We’re not saying it’s an easy decision. We’re not saying it’s a fun exercise to have to go through. We get that. But we have to advocate for Trackside. We have to advocate for this town’s youth–that is our mission. That is our goal. So that is why the emails and things that went out, when we finally got visibility to the COVID-related cuts, this is what we have to do as good stewards of our organization.

GMW:  What else do you want people to know?

Moser:  Make sure that the public knows that while our facility is closed right now, we have not walked away from the teens. We are open in virtual programming. We’re about to kick off community building. Hopefully it also raised some fun Trackside type of an event. But Trackside’s not slowing down. Regardless of COVID, we’re here to support our teens and our community, as much and even more as we can in this new scenario. We’re just as passionate, if not more passionate, in this strange new world.

Close:  Whether the Board of Selectmen has some sort of agenda regarding Trackside, you know they do.

GMW:  What do you mean by that? When you say the BOS has an agenda?

Close:  I don’t think that they believe in our mission. And I think they think that Trackside is dispensable. And they’ve told us before, even Lynne said it in March, that they’re not so sure that there are programs and what not that we have that can’t be done by Parks and Rec or, what’s the service over Comstock?

GMW:  Social Services?

Close:  Social services, you know, and we couldn’t disagree more with that premise. Trackside runs on funding and it runs on passion and long hours spent by John and Cindy, far more than 40 hours a week each that they put into making sure that Trackside is what it is. And I just don’t see anybody from Parks and Rec staying up at night, like John or Cindy do, trying to pick the next best program. I don’t see anybody from Parks and Rec or Social Services taking a bunch of sophomores and juniors to Boston to look at colleges on a weekend. It’s that kind of passion that makes Trackside what it is and the notion that that can be duplicated within departments of the town is not right. Untrue. Unfounded.

When you look at the broader impact Trackside has on this community, the amount of money that the town has granted us in the past is not out of line with the impact that we provide.