Much as the president annually declares that “the state of the union is strong,” so, too, did Weston First Selectman Gayle Weinstein contend in her “State of the Town” address to the Weston Kiwanis Club last week that the town is tackling some tough issues but is on strong footing.
Ms. Weinstein said in leading the town, she follows several “guiding principles,” which include:
- Fiscal responsibility.
- Property tax stability.
- Maintaining necessary town services.
- Improving infrastructure.
- Addressing public safety issues.
- Continuing to reflect “community values.”
- Recognizing a concern for next year’s mill rate.
Ms. Weinstein said there are several positive economic indicators. Weston has been called the wealthiest community in Connecticut, and the school district consistently ranks tops in the state.
However, other indicators are more mixed. Social services needs are rising, unemployment is still twice as high as it was five years ago, and there were still six foreclosures and six short sales last year.
But at 5.1%, the town’s unemployment rate is lower than the state and national average, and the foreclosure/short sale numbers have dropped significantly — there were 23 foreclosures in town in 2011 and 27 in 2010; short sales numbered 14 in 2011 and 25 in 2010.
Ms. Weinstein said the forecast for the current budget year indicates the town is on track to end the fiscal year with about a $1-million surplus — if the schools do not go significantly over or under budget. She said revenues are up by about $1 million; town expenditures are running about $56,000 over budget; and debt service is $46,000 under budget.
The town’s fund balance is estimated to be at $9,666,069, or 14.7% of the total budget, at the end of the fiscal year.
The first selectman gave a brief overview of the proposed town operating budget. The Board of Selectmen approved a request of $11,690,441, a 3.32% increase over the current year.
The biggest drivers of the budget increase, Ms. Weinstein said, are public safety, personnel, and increased use of the Senior Center.
These are partially offset by staff reductions (-$51,000), energy savings (-$18,000), general liability and property insurance costs (-$21,000), and decreased elections costs (-$12,000), Ms. Weinstein said.
The capital budget request includes systems and technology upgrades as well as infrastructure improvements for both the schools and the town.
The two largest requests, however, are a $275,000 payment into the vehicle sinking fund, used to purchase vehicles when they are needed rather than on a pre-determined scheduled basis, and $100,000 to be put into an account for bridge repair (the Pent Road bridge is scheduled for replacement in the upcoming year).
Systems and technology requests include $75,000 for GIS (geographic information system) equipment.
Ms. Weinstein said Weston is the only town in the region that does not currently have GIS. The South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) recently received a grant to do a flyover and mapping of the entire region. Because Weston is a member of SWRPA, the town will not have to pay separately for these relatively expensive elements of the system.
The $75,000 in the capital budget will cover upgraded computer equipment, and a person to load information and maintain the system, Ms. Weinstein said, adding that the position may be one that could be shared with another town.
Other technology requests include police technology and breathing apparatus for the Fire Department.
Infrastructure requests in the capital budget include initial funding for replacement of the portion of the public library roof that still needs to be replaced, and improvements at the middle school, such as floor and classroom door replacements and a new public address system.
Ms. Weinstein said town leaders are very cognizant of the fact that the mill rate is likely to increase in the next several years. In planning for a given year, “we have to look at the next several years” to make sure “we are not pushing off too much from one year to the next,” she said.
The first selectman pointed out that after six years of mill rate increases of 8.9% in fiscal year 2006, 3.2% in 2007, 2.88% in 2008, 2.82% in 2009, 2.25% in 2010 (equalized due to revaluation), and 1.06% in 2011, the town has kept its mill rate increase below 1% for fiscal years 2012 (0.3%) and 2013 (0.3%), and is proposing a 0.58% increase for 2014.
She said there are budget concerns for 2014-15, however. These include revaluation next year (revenue-neutral for the town, but a likely decrease in property values will mean a higher mill rate); the potential elimination of the motor vehicle tax; a looming upgrade of the police and communications center facilities; and the inevitable cost of shuffling employees to different town facilities.
Ms. Weinstein touted several accomplishments over the past year:
- Improvements to the Onion Barn.
- Charter revision, which includes changes to the Annual Town Budget Meeting (ATBM) and election procedures.
- Advancement of the Lachat property project.
- Improved storm response efforts.
- Infrastructure improvements, such as the creation of an informal Facilities Committee and the commencement of a space needs study.
- Safety improvements, including sightline improvements on Old Mill Road, an upcoming traffic light study and possible sidewalk grant, additional police equipment, and changes to the town’s firearms ordinance.
Ms. Weinstein said that, looking ahead, “the town will continue to look at opportunities for shared services with the school district and other towns.”
Weston has historically cultivated a culture that values open space preservation, preservation of historic buildings, strong schools, and “acceptance of tax increases,” Ms. Weinstein said.
But she believes the town may be at a “crossroads.” There seems to be more acceptance of commercial development in town, selling or leasing town property, taking a closer look at affordable housing, and balancing taxes with services offered.