Vanderslice OP-ED: Town Priorities for 2019
This is the start of a new year, the last year of my four-year term and a good time to review priorities for the year ahead.
In the past three years, we have reduced costs and slowed cost growth by consolidating positions within the town and with the schools, by identifying more efficient means of operation, and through collective bargaining. The results have been more than $2 million of unspent budgeted funds returned to the general fund and an average annual budget increase of 1.1%. In addition, we have helped the schools reduce their costs.
Now we have transitioned to working with other towns as a means of reducing costs. Next week we will be announcing a partnership with Weston to reduce energy costs. Among other things, we are seeking a shared solution for the Transfer Station, which despite being an enterprise fund has required annual taxpayer subsidies as high as $300,000. Without a correction, the subsidies will increase by up to a third due to the collapse of the resale market for recyclables.
Economic Development/Grand List Growth
The town’s moratorium on developers’ use of 8-30g [CT’s Affordable Housing statute] expires at the end of 2019. If projects occur prior to the expiration of the moratorium, we can ensure those projects are consistent with our zoning regulations. As such, we put out the message that our doors are open to development, particularly for the type of housing Wilton lacks.
That messaging has paid off with the proposed development along Rte. 7. One project provides housing sought by empty nesters and young couples not yet ready to purchase. Another proposes a continuum of care community, similar to one outside of Wilton, where many former residents now reside.
The office market is suffering. Vacant retail space is seen across Fairfield County. We seek to encourage and assist current or future owners to maximize those properties.
We continue to work in partnership with other organizations to bring traffic into Wilton Center and increase our sense of community. We are working with the Planning & Zoning Commission to fund a master plan for the Center through current year budget savings. We have sought additional grant funding to build the pedestrian bridge from the train station to the Center.
As a means of advancing Wilton’s priorities and access to grant funding, I assumed the Treasurer position for the Western Connecticut Council of Governance (WestCOG), an agency of 18 areas town and cities with responsibility for prioritizing transportation and regional shared services spending. Wilton’s transportation priorities include improvements on Rte. 7 for businesses, employees and residents. They include the Grumman Hill/Rte. 7 intersection, adding the missing second lane south of Orem’s and traffic calming.
Infrastructure and Recreation
Leaky roofs at Town Hall, an overcrowded police station, and the need to temporarily relocate employees are evidence that we can no longer defer work on our municipal buildings. An appointed committee, along with a consultant, is developing a plan. At the same time, we are working with WestCOG to study the possibility of a shared facility. We expect to present voters with a plan in conjunction with the November municipal elections. The Fire Commission is performing a critical reexamination of the statement of requirements for Station 2. That plan should be finalized by April.
We are in year two of our five-year plan to repave 15 miles of road per year. By 2023 all road paving will be 10 years old or newer. We have increased DPW staff to more aggressively address overgrowth, potholes and other road-related issues.
A committee appointed to study our fields identified a need for additional turf fields. We are working with athletic organizations to engage an engineer to investigate the location. In the meantime, we have engaged an engineer to address the parking issue at Hurlbutt to allow for simultaneous use of those two fields. Plans for the stadium track will be finalized by the annual town meeting.
We are minimizing borrowings by completing bonded projects under budget, beginning with Miller Driscoll and most recently with the renovations to the bus barn. We are investigating partially funding upcoming school roof replacements with savings from additional solar installations. Any new field and any proposed renovations to Merwins and Schencks will be funded through public private partnerships.
Modernized and Accessible Government
Initiatives like See-Click-Fix, e-Trak, expanded online video and audio of meetings, and increased use of social media are examples of increasing transparency and resident engagement. This year, we will roll out an improved user-friendly website and an improved online payment system.
Assistance for Seniors
We are sensitive to the difficulty of remaining in Wilton for those on a fixed income. We have and will continue to identify initiatives to assist, including a reexamination of the tax relief program. Funding for the program was increased in response to increased participation. This past April, the State eliminated their senior tax relief program. In response, the Board of Selectmen funded the program through current budget savings. We will soon launch a senior discount program and have rolled out a prescription discount plan.
Energy and Environment
In 2015, less than 1.0% of energy needs were derived from renewal sources. Today 13% of that needed by the schools and the town is from solar. By the end of the year we hope to be at 38%. We have a plan to be at 70%, if all of our submitted applications are approved. With the help of professionals, we are investigating Aquarion’s application to withdraw 1.0 million gallons per day from their Cannondale well and the Norwalk River. In the spring we will remove more invasives along the river and create more views. We will roll out more programming with Keep America Beautiful to reduce litter and the use of disposables. We will be collaborating with Trout Unlimited on projects to improve the health of the river and its recreational use.
Impact of the State
We anticipate the imposition of more costs on the town by the state. The threat of Wilton sharing teacher pension contributions still looms large. Between 2015 and 2017, the state’s contribution for Wilton teachers increased from $7.1 million to $14.7 million. I have met with our new and returning representatives to discuss concerns and priorities, including necessary changes to binding arbitration to facilitate joint initiatives with other towns. In the end, the best way to position Wilton, in the face of uncertainty from the state, is to ensure we have reduced our costs to the lowest possible level, while maintaining quality town services.
Lastly, I would like to recognize our town employees. They, with the assistance of the volunteer members of our boards and commissions, are the “we” in all that has and will be accomplished. I thank them for their continued support.
Editor’s note: Some stylistic edits, including bold text, were added by GMW for emphasis.