Sensible Wilton Questions the 2015 Candidates
Questions were sent to all candidates running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen. Responses were received from four of the six candidates – First Selectman candidate Lynne Vanderslice* (R) and Selectmen candidates Dave Clune (U), Michael Kaelin** (R) and Gil Bray (D).
No responses (either to the questions or to say they declined to participate) were received from First Selectman candidate Deb McFadden (D) or Selectmen candidate Brian Lilly (D).
Lynne Vanderslice’s, Michael Kaelin’s and Gil Bray’s responses follow each question below.
Dave Clune’s responses are at the end. He asked that his be published in the same format as they were submitted.
* Preface to Lynne Vanderslice responses: I should not comment on Sensible Wilton as an organization because of questions that have been raised concerning it in a lawsuit it brought against the Town of Wilton in the Connecticut Superior Court. However, without commenting upon Sensible Wilton as an organization, my responses to the questions from the individuals who call themselves “Sensible Wilton” are as follows:
** Preface to Michael Kaelin responses: I cannot comment on Sensible Wilton as an organization because of questions that have been raised concerning it in a lawsuit pending in the Connecticut Superior Court. However, without commenting upon or conceding anything with respect to Sensible Wilton as an organization, my responses to the questions from the individuals who call themselves “Sensible Wilton” are as follows:
What is your vision of Wilton in five years? In ten years?
Vanderslice – Whether five or ten years from now, my vision for Wilton is to be a community which is both affordable and desirable to its residents and future residents and is as engaged, generous and caring of its fellow citizens as the Wilton I have lived in for the last 28 years.
I hope Wilton will be affordable in terms of taxes as a result of a cost effectively managed government and an expanded tax base. More affordable in terms of housing by offering a diversity of options which continue to allow for a community of singles, families, empty nesters and seniors.
I hope Wilton will be desirable through strong, high achieving schools, a vibrant downtown frequented by residents and residents of neighboring towns with green spaces to gather and enjoy the view of the river, amenities for residents of all ages either developed through greater use of our existing facilities or funded through private public partnerships including the completion of the Norwalk River Valley Trail and other outdoor athletic facilities.
I hope Wilton will be a community that continues to value it past and maintain its New England small town charm, a community that has embraced the future through proper planning and efforts to ensure we leave an environmentally stronger community than when we arrived. I hope it will still be a place where my son or my neighbors’ children or grandchildren will want to come to raise their families and be active participants of the town.
Kaelin – I see Wilton as taking advantage of the technological advances that allow us to live such a high quality of life to attract new residents and businesses to Wilton while preserving and enhancing what attracted each one of us here in the first place—good schools, a nice place to raise a family, and outstanding community organizations. I see Wilton as an economically vibrant hub in the middle of Fairfield County that builds upon and respects what has been given to us by those who came before us. We have to both embrace change and value what has been done in the past to make progress.
Bray – Wilton in 5 years will improve its competitive position with neighboring towns in terms of education, the economy, cultural activities, community involvement and the crime rate. The Comstock and Miller Driscoll projects will be complete, the bridge over the river by the train station will funnel more people in the town center, potentially commercial investment in town will emerge and the Norwalk River Valley Trail will be completed. All of these initiatives will contribute to the desirability of Wilton as the first choice when looking for a new home or office. Exercising fiscal responsibility through the budgeting process is key as well as maintaining public safety and services.
Longer term potentially work could begin on other private public partnerships to provide mixed use housing and public amenities for local residents. Over the next 10 years my hope is that through my position on the BOS shared services with other towns and the BOE can be expanded and investment increased in town through aggressive Economic Development Initiatives. Keeping expenses in check being mindful of the towns responsibility to its citizens and attracting new investment should lower the property tax rate through an expanded grand lists.
Any medium or long term view is dependent on the overall economy and also the economic conditions in the State of Connecticut.
What do you see as the most critical issues we need to address in order to remain competitive with surrounding towns?
Vanderslice – I assume your reference to “remaining competitive with surrounding towns” means demand for Wilton property and housing. The three most critical issues in maintaining demand are affordability in terms of taxes, perceived value for one’s investment judged in terms of quality of schools and town services and amenities.
Kaelin – Taxes.
Bray – Having spoken with many citizens it is clear the top priority to be addressed is the towns tax burden on our citizens. Addressing this issue requires a sharp eye on expenses while maintaining our high quality educational system, public safety and services.
A growing number of taxpayers—including parents of current and future Miller Driscoll students– believe the $50 million renovation plan for Miller Driscoll still has many unanswered questions — wrong design for the wrong price, excess capacity, etc. How would you address this issue?
Vanderslice – I have spoken with hundreds of residents while campaigning. Whether or not they supported the MD renovation, they all want assurance that the project is being executed in the most cost effective manner. As First Selectman I will attend as many MDBC meetings as possible and will meet regularly with the Committee Chairs. I will ensure that the public has the information they need to have that assurance.
I will work with the MD Building Committee to ensure that all information related to the project is up on the project’s website. http://millerdriscollrenovations.weebly.com. In addition to what is already on the website, the following information will be available: Weekly Updates, Detail Budget and Spending, Tax Impact, FAQ’s, Photos, Contact Us, Citizen Questions and Responses. The current Document section will include contracts and testing results.
When a project is approved by as small a margin as this project, it is important to bring in the people who were opposed as soon as possible to understand their concerns and attempt to clarify or address those concerns. To the extent that this has not occurred, I will work with the other BOS members to do that now.
Kaelin – I would like to add people from more diverse points of view to the Miller Driscoll Building Committee.
Bray – I disagree with the premise. There are also many taxpayers including “current and future” parents of MD students who understand the structural needs of MD now and over the next 30 years and are supportive of the renovation. All taxpayers understand that through the bidding process the actual cost may be lower.
Wilton’s high taxes have negatively impacted our housing market, forcing some to leave Wilton after many decades as well as driving young families to buy their first homes in surrounding communities. We know Wilton has a AAA bond rating but this does not mean we should maximize spending. What will you initiate and support to reduce taxes?
Vanderslice – The following plan has been on my website since early August:
As First Selectman, I will continue to focus on minimizing the mil rate. This will require a three-pronged approach: containing operating costs, increasing revenues through grand list growth and minimizing borrowings. I plan to work with the Board of Selectman to accomplish this as follows:
Contain operating costs:
- Aggressive efforts towards shared services between the town and the Wilton Public Schools & the town and other CT municipalities.
- In-depth reviews of headcount and actual expenditures for all departments including comparisons to other municipalities.
- Zero based budgeting.
- Meaningful three-year operating forecasts and ten-year capital forecasts.
- Recommend and encourage private fundraising for enhancements to amenities.
Increase revenues through grand list growth:
- Proactive approach to encourage investment in diverse housing stock:
- Continue town initiatives to encourage housing alternatives, which provide options for seniors and empty nesters seeking to remain in Wilton.
- Initiatives to market Wilton to prospective homeowners. Provide a “Thinking of Moving to Wilton” link on the town website and investigate joint initiatives with businesses.
- Economic Development:
- “First Selectman’s Listening Lunches” with commercial property owners, business owners and all Town Board and Commission members to allow us to listen and better know and understand our commercial taxpayers.
- Support the implementation of the Economic Development Commission’s recommendations.
- Outreach to Planning and Zoning to begin town-wide discussions of proactive actions that can be taken by the town in geographic areas of opportunity as identified in the Plan of Conservation and Development.
- Consider ways to incorporate the river into downtown and investigate increasing access to Schenck’s Island so as to provide for the gathering of individuals in the Town Center.
- A comprehensive long-term financial plan for all town properties and facilities including those under the jurisdiction of Parks and Rec. Identify and investigate potential opportunities for shared facilities. Recommend and encourage public-private partnerships for new amenities.
Kaelin – Economic development, reducing the costs of capital projects, and not bonding the entire cost of and/or all capital projects. We need to increase our commercial tax base to reduce the burden on our residential tax base. We need to reduce the costs of current and projected capital projects, and we need to find alternatives to bonding all capital projects. See further my answer to Question 6 below.
Bray – Taxes are not the only reason that individuals and families leave Wilton; some leave because of company transfers, some leave to be closer to family, some leave because of the weather and some to downsize because Wilton lacks that category of housing. Individuals who chose to leave because of the tax structure will probably be also leaving because of one of these issues. If they chose to relocate in Connecticut they may no longer need to commute to NY, Stamford or other Fairfield county towns. My point is that the tax structure is not the only reason for moving as you imply. Increasing the Grand List through investment, paying close attention to expenditures and continuing to promote public services through public private partnerships can lower the tax rate.
Capital bonded projects have often been presented to the voters without significant analysis and deliberation or the opportunity to learn about the genuine need, actual cost (near and long term) and true financial impact of the proposal. How would you change this?
Vanderslice – I will preface my response with the following: As a BOF member, I vote on whether to recommend the public support a bonded project. I looked back at BOF minutes for the last 4 years and found that I voted on 22 projects. I voted to recommend 17 projects. I did not support recommending 4 projects and for one project I abstained. Of the 4 I did not recommend, according to the minutes for 2 projects I did so because there was not enough information. My recollection of the abstention is that I did not have enough information. Thus in the vast majority of cases, I felt there was adequate information and analysis to recommend support for a project.
What I would change within the process is the length of time between when both the BOF and the public are provided with the information and analysis and when the BOF and the public vote on the bonding. There have been times when I requested the BOF be given information earlier than is typical for projects as I knew the projects would require significant time to review; time that may be difficult to find for the working members of the BOF. This did not happen. As First Selectman, I would move up when the bonded projects are presented to the BOF and at the same time put the information on the website for the public to review.
Kaelin – We need to extend the timeline for presenting bond proposals to the Town Meeting, and the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance need to hold public hearings on the bonding proposals well in advance of the Town Meeting in which the bonding proposals are presented to the voters. Under the current Charter, the Board of Selectmen are only required to refer the bonding proposal to the Board of Finance “for its review not less than 15 days in advance of the Town Meeting.” (Charter § C-33.B) We need to extend the timeline, and we need to provide more opportunities for voters to ask questions and get answers.
Bray – I would disagree. There is significant effort put into capital bonded projects. There are numerous opportunities for public involvement. If individuals do not exercise their rights and interest to get involved until the last minute I don’t have much sympathy.
What is your opinion on bonding versus pay as you go budgeting?
Vanderslice – Large capital projects with a long life should be bonded. Wilton does not have the tax base to fully fund major capital projects in the annual budget. Greenwich is the only town I am aware of who has previously done this and since the recession, they have begun more and more bonding.
Kaelin – It depends upon the circumstances and the project. For example, if we bond more than $40 million for the Miller Driscoll Project, we are going to have to find another way to finance the renovation of the Police Station. We cannot keep adding to our debt without adding to our tax burden.
Bray – This question of course depends on the project and its usable life. My concern is that by funding certain projects through pay as you go budgeting, these projects often become an easy cut to the budget resulting in delayed investments which impact public services and cost more in the long run.
Would you support voting on the Town and Board of Education budgets separately?
Vanderslice – I assume the question comes from a place of wanting the ability to vote yes to one budget and vote no to another. That ability currently exists within the charter. Any Town Meeting attendee can make a motion to reduce the BOE budget or a line item in the BOS budget. If seconded, the motion is voted upon. Although there may have been more, I only recall being at one town meeting when such a motion was made.
Kaelin – I have always supported it. When I was on the Charter Commission, I supported allowing the Town Meeting to have the maximum amount of flexibility on voting on the town budget permitted by state statutes. This included giving the people physically present at the Town Meeting the opportunity to vote separately not only on the Board of Education and Selectmen’s budgets, but also allowing the Town Meeting to vote separately on each line item in the Selectmen’s budget. Under the terms of the Charter, any person physically present at the Town Meeting can make a motion to reduce either the Board of Education Budget, Board of Selectmen’s budget, or any line item in the Board of Selectmen’s budget. The only reason the Charter does not give persons physically present at the Town Meeting the ability to vote separately on specific line items in the Board of Education budget is because state statutes do not permit this.
Bray – The structure of the Town Budget vote is governed by the Town Charter and will surely be an issue when the Town Charter is up for review. My feeling is that Wilton is a community, not a group of competing constituencies. We should all take the responsibility to support or vote against a Town Budget as a community not divisive interest groups.
Will you commit to initiate and support the process to change the town charter to eliminate the 15% rule where a proposal is approved if less than 15% of eligible voters vote?
Vanderslice – I am a big supporter of town meeting governance. To me that means every voter is entitled to a vote and each vote is valued equally. The 15% rules negates the value of one’s vote, as such I would bring forward the recommendation of putting it to the voters whether to convene a charter commission.
Kaelin – I am in favor of eliminating the requirement in the Charter that at least 15% of the voters have to vote to reject the town budget. However, by state law we cannot change this one part of the Charter without opening up the entire Charter for revision, and going through a detailed set of procedures for amending the Charter prescribed by state statutes that include appointing a Charter Commission, holding public hearings, presenting it to the Board of Selectmen, and ultimately presenting it to the voters for approval. The 15 percent requirement is merely one component of a comprehensive set of procedures for getting the budget passed. All of those procedures were put in place to allow residents and tax payers the maximum amount of input in the budget process permitted by state law.
Bray – I will not commit to such a process at this time. I understand the issues on both sides and will reserve my opinion until this issue is fully debated.
Taxpayers have to work too hard to find information that should be readily available and easily accessible—or proactively provided to them to start with. What is your opinion of the Town and schools’ transparency and how would you change it?
Vanderslice – The following as been on my website since August:
Wilton is experiencing low voter turn out, close budget and bonding votes and calls for increased transparency. To encourage participation and increase transparency, I will:
- Create “First Selectmen Open Office Hours” to encourage residents to express their concerns and opinions.
- Expand communication between the town and residents:
- Survey residents to better understand why residents don’t vote in municipal elections.
- Investigate use of social media, reverse 911 and website changes.
- Expand the usefulness of financial information:
- Provide proposed spending compared to actual spending.
- Increase the lead-time between the discussion of bonding proposals and the vote on those proposals.
Kaelin – That has not been my experience even before I was appointed to the Board of Selectmen. However, if other taxpayers are having that experience, they should bring it to the attention of the appropriate oversight board or commission, such as the Board of Selectmen, Board of Education or Board of Finance. The Town Charter and the state statutes provide for the maximum amount of transparency, and town officials have a responsibility to insure this happens.
Bray – Transparency of Wilton Town Boards, Commissions and many volunteer organizations have improved tremendously over the past 10 years as technology allows greater dissemination of information in real time and innovative reporting now brings thoughtful commentary and objective reporting of information to the public within 24 hours of a meeting or event. There are rules for noticing meetings and events which can be improved and brought up to date with current technology. There is an obligation on the public through to make an effort to proactively seek out the information on issues that are of interest. The BOE website carries an extensive amount of information while the BOS website needs to be improved to make finding the information easier and more complete.
The ability to communicate with town officials is inconsistent and sometimes difficult, i.e. not every department has a town email address they give out. Would you support that all board, commission, and committee members, as well as employees, have a town/school email address to use and share with residents who would like to contact them?
Vanderslice – I not only support the concept, I requested of the Board of Finance chair that all Board of Finance members be given town email addresses.
Kaelin – At a minimum, all elected and appointed board, commission and committee members, and all department heads should have a town email address that is made available to the general public. We answer to the public and the public needs an effective way to communicate with town officials.
Bray – I would support a consistent approach to email addresses for Boards and Commissions. As to whether an individual wants to have a town/school address or share their personal email address is up to the individual. I do think that all emails should go to the Board or Commission address so that every member can see every email, this is true transparency.
Voter participation has been low and declining. What steps will you take to increase voter participation?
Vanderslice – See response to Question 9
Kaelin – Communicating and demonstrating to voters that their votes actually matter is the best way to increase voter participation, which is one of the reasons why I am in favor of eliminating the requirement that at least 15 percent of the voters have to vote to reject the town budget. While I know why that requirement is there and that it was originally intended to increase voter participation, I can see how in practice it makes people feel like their votes do not matter. The best way to encourage voting is to make all votes matter.
Bray – Voter participation rises and falls on competitive elections, controversial issues and willingness of committed individuals and groups to get the vote out. Over the years Civics education has lessened in importance. It is so good to see the Wilton School System emphasizing Civics, debate and community service. Improved communication through newspapers, on-line news services and postings on town websites help, but nothing gets voters to the polls like a contested election or important issues. We need to continue to encourage volunteerism in the myriad of groups and organizations we have in town. Volunteerism breeds interest in the community which translates to voter participation. In addition we should consider the First Selectman’s hot line to notify all town residents of elections.
As of October 30, 2014 there were more Unaffiliated registered voters (4,488) in Wilton than Republicans (4,314) or Democrats (3,100), yet the Wilton RTC and DTC are given the reins to select people to fill town boards, commissions and committees. Do you believe it is important to have a significant number of Unaffiliated residents involved as well? If so, what would you do to garner their involvement?
Vanderslice – I think is important to have a diverse mix of residents on town boards, commissions and committees. Diversity should include not only political affiliation or lack of affiliation, but also stage of life, length of residency and background. Anyone can petition and run for a Board as an unaffiliated candidate just as Dave Clune has done in this election. The BOS appoints commission members and committees with a great deal of the decision influenced by the two political parties. The process should be such that unaffiliated candidates are given as much opportunity as those recommended by the two parties. To do so the process will need to be changed.
Kaelin – Yes, I am in favor of everyone being involved in the process regardless of party affiliation or non-affiliation, and I have worked hard to make this happen. When I was a member of the Republican Town Committee from 1994 to 2010, I worked hard to recruit both Republicans and unaffiliated voters to serve on town boards, commissions and committees, and urged members of the Democratic Town Committee to recruit both Democrats and unaffiliated voters to serve on town boards, commissions and committees, which they did.
Bray – The DTC and RTC provide a valuable service in vetting candidates for public office. Both organizations have nominated unaffiliated registered voters to fill open positions or run for an open seat in an election. We have seen this year that there is no reason why an unaffiliated person cannot run as an unaffiliated candidate. I am registered as unaffiliated and running on the Democratic ticket.
Dave Clune’s responses to Sensible Wilton’s Questions to the 2015 Candidates
In five years, through the active engagement and participation of our citizens and with a clear focus on economic development, Wilton will be a town in which all residents will be proud to call home, with reasonable taxes and excellent public schools (including a recently renovated Miller-Driscoll), capable of attracting new residents every year.
While controlling costs is crucial, Wilton’s greatest opportunities for tax relief are in the area of economic development — not just budget cuts. Rather than focusing solely on cuts to town spending, I believe that as a town we must ensure that prospective citizens and businesses are aware of Wilton and perceive Wilton as the preferred location for their families and businesses. In May of 2014, through the hard work of volunteers, the Wilton Economic Development Commission published a report outlining economic development as an area where community expenditures can be made with the expectation of a reasonable return on that investment. Wilton has not yet fully embraced the series of short and long-term recommendations made back in 2014. The next Board of Selectmen must review the 2014 report and develop a strategy for acting on these recommendations.
Bonding and “pay as you go” each have advantages and disadvantages. Choosing an approach is complex and best answered on a project by project basis. With appropriate planning, projects can be completed with the pay as you go approach, but most large projects are often better suited for bonding. Bonding’s benefit is that it can both facilitate and speed the construction of capital projects like schools, community centers and other public facilities that benefit a town. The downside is that interest payments impose a cost and excessive bonding can reduce funds available for other uses. Wilton has traditionally been conservative in the area of bonding and I doubt that approach will change.
Bifurcating the annual budget vote and eliminating the 15% voter turnout rule both require careful study and consultation with the entire community. In looking at this issue, I have read a 2011 report issued by Hebron’s Bifurcation Study Committee and a 2014 Office of Legislative Research Backgrounder on the issue. In reading these reports, I have come to the conclusion that I have more to learn on these issues.
Wilton currently makes meeting agendas, minutes and some reports available online. Information exchange between residents and Town Departments needs to become more fluid and transparent. As a member of the Board of Selectmen, I will suggest the creation of a thorough communications plan, including an update of the Town’s website and increased use of social media, to more proactively push-out information so it is easily accessible to all. Along these lines, I would support an update to the Town’s directory so that phone and email addresses are available for all town departments, boards, commissions and the respective Department Heads and Chairs.
I joined the Wilton Economic Development Commission as an unaffiliated voter and petitioned onto the ballot for the Board of Selectmen as an unaffiliated candidate. As an unaffiliated candidate, I have no one else’s agenda in mind, except the greater good of the town and will be working for all of Wilton’s residents. I hope that my candidacy sets an example and encourages other residents to actively participate on the town’s boards and commissions.
I understand ethics, transparency and doing the right thing through my roles as an Assistant District Attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and as a Compliance and Ethics Officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and am confident these strengths will benefit the town. I ask that you support my candidacy by learning more about my experience at daveclune.org.