With the only cut made by the Board of Finance to either the town or school proposed FY’18 budgets being a $25,000 reduction to Trackside Teen Center‘s budget, it was destined to be a topic raised at last night’s Board of Selectmen meeting (Monday, April 3). The cut came after the BoF members discussed wanting Trackside to be an organization that eventually is self-sustaining, requiring no support from the town.

First selectman Lynne Vanderslice said she invited members of the Trackside Board to last night’s BoS meeting to speak to the selectmen.

Judging by what Trackside board members told the BoS, news of the cut hit hard.

Trackside board president Artie DiRocco said that they originally had proposed an operating budget request of $150,000 that already reflected a “modest cut” of about $4,000. But getting an additional $25,000 reduction at last week’s Board of Finance mill rate deliberation was unexpected.

“I’m not sure we deserved the entire cut. We are just putting these processes in place to try to make more money. It’s a lot of pressure for us. This plan is about a month old. To say that we’re going to  execute on a certain number of things in that time frame is a little risky for us. Companies that we want to go talk to, their fiscal year is calendar year. There’s a good chance they’ve done their donating for the year, and we’re going to have to wait to get on their docket of the fourth quarter of this year to see if they’ll donate the first quarter of next year.”

He added that he hoped the BoS would help offset some of the risk facing the center.

DiRocco said that when he took over the board three years ago he saw a need to recruit new board members who would be able to do more fundraising that the board he had inherited. But, he said, it was a difficult process.

“You can’t reshape a board overnight. It’s taken us two years to get to where we are now with a board that has the skill set and contacts and energy and the commitment to help us raise funds. We do have a five-year plan to dramatically reduce our reliance on town funding. We didn’t have a board that we felt comfortable going look for angel investors. We weren’t ready to do a presentation, and you have one chance with a lot of these people. If we had done this two years ago would have done a disservice to the teen center.”

He said the plan is to put together that presentation now. Other changes have been made, including the addition of new board members, including Wilton resident and Middlebrook teacher John Priest to help draw even more kids to use the facility and take part in the programs.

Ann Mitrone, a new Trackside board member, presented the fundraising plan that the board has put together in general terms.

“The board really is very committed to turning around the fiscal makeup of Trackside and reducing town dependency. It’s a three-pronged approach, setting up different committees that are going to be responsible for various activities–we have committees focusing on activities, donations and grant income.”

Other elements include forming a youth board to help put together event to draw more kids. They also will look to expand family programming that kids and parents can do together.

“Regardless of what we do, children are our top priority,” Mitrone said, reinforcing the center’s mission.

In addition, there will be a committee focused on fiscal oversight and long term planning. They’re looking into setting up a capital account for future improvements.

She echoed DiRocco in asking the BoS for assistance.

“What I ask is that, in good faith, that you help us with that $25,000 cut. We are making strides, they’re not going to happen today, tomorrow. But I can assure you on behalf of this board we are committed to making these changes. We’re excited about moving ahead, we look forward to building more fiscal stability. Again, I just ask for your help and support in getting us over that,” Mitrone said.

Trackside executive director Mark Ketley grew somewhat emotional as he spoke about what he felt when he heard the cut be discussed by the Board of Finance.

“Some of the comments that came out at the meetings made me feel concerned. Like we’re raising money with outside groups and not through the kids’ efforts. The reason we raise that money so the doors stay open for the kids. I can’t tell you when the kids come in, no they don’t pay as a drop in, but they have a place to go. Parents are charged for everything and when they get charged too much, they won’t come and they’re home alone. That’s when they get in trouble in these teen years. We’re providing this place for the teams, the groups, the clubs, the non profit organizations in town that are doing work for the kids. We’re the hub for all that. You just can’t put a price on that.”

Vanderslice asked whether any of the Trackside board members were prepared to ask for a specific dollar amount that they hoped the BoS would offset if possible. The board members decided to confer and come back at the next meeting with a specific amount to request. She also said that the BoS would consider having a representative serve as a member on the Trackside board.

BoS member Dick Dubow suggested that the Trackside board make a presentation to the Board of Finance, something Ketley said he couldn’t remember doing recently. Dubow also said the Fairfield County Foundation might be a good fundraising/grant prospect.

Vanderslice also said that the original intent was to have Trackside have more of a Social Services function, and strengthening that connection should be a priority, especially as the town’s new Social Services director comes on board. Ketley said he has done so in the past and has often worked together with Colleen Fawcett, the former Social services director, to help specific at-risk kids in town.

Former First Selectman Tells a Different Story

At the start of the meeting, during public comment, former first selectman Paul Hannah–who had been first selectmen when Trackside was created–spoke to the BoS about what he said was the originally intent for Trackside’s financial management. He asserted that it had never been intended to make Trackside completely self-sustaining and separate from any town funding need.

“I principally blame members of the BoF who have indicated that the teen center way back when we were establishing it way back in the first decade of this century, had committed to be self-sustaining. My recollection is that is not correct. At no time did we ever believe that this was something which would be able over time to sustain itself unless you had found an angel as Greenwich had located. The town of New Canaan withdrew its funding to their teen center, and it shortly thereafter closed.”

He continued, “There is as I recall in the operating agreement or the lease document, in boldface type something that says funding is not guaranteed. The reason that’s there is because Joe Dolan the town counsel at the time, advised us we could not make a commitment for future Boards of Selectmen. Indeed you all have the power, as well as the Board of Finance, to completely cut that funding out under the operating agreement as I understand it. But please don’t say that the teen center agreed to raise all its money itself. The implication is, it’s now a decade later and you’re finally forcing them to do it. That was not the case back then, we never thought they would be able to raise their own 100% of their operating costs.

“Maybe they’ll find an angel; maybe Mark Ketley is a much better fundraiser than the other towns around here where their teen centers have closed. But I wanted to correct the record.”