I encourage all residents to attend the Town’s Preliminary Budget Hearing on Monday, April 18 at 7:30 pm at the Firehouse (100 Center Road). At this hearing residents are invited to make comments or ask questions about the budget. Following the hearing the Board of Finance meets and may adjust the budget before it is presented to the Annual Town Meeting in May.
Under normal circumstances we would hold a meeting of this size in the Center Building Gym. However, there is no ventilation in that room and meeting in the Firehouse with the bay doors open is a much safer option.
Our annual budget reflects our shared values and is a balancing act of our commitments to provide excellent education for our children and show our respect to taxpayers by careful budgeting and responsible spending on essential Town services. You will receive a budget summary in the mail, but I encourage you to also visit our website where you can view the Town’s new interactive budget. This tool should help residents better understand our finances and budget.
The end of our fiscal year is a time when I reflect on what we’ve accomplished over the last year and what we are hoping for in the coming year.
This year’s budget process has been extremely challenging. Our budget crisis is caused by a long-term revenue problem. Expenses continue to grow, but our revenues remain stagnant. Our challenges stem from decisions made over many, many years to restrict residential and commercial zoning and to conserve open space, which has left us little room for any growth.
New and diverse revenue is critical to continue to fund our high-quality education and other important Town services.
Last year I created the “2030 Task Force”, which was charged with seeking ways to create a healthier, robust Grand List by 2030. Recently, this ad hoc committee presented a proposal to the Board of Selectmen to hire a planner to improve the business district. I am hopeful that a more attractive and pedestrian friendly business district will attract more businesses and consumers.
I have also created a subcommittee of the Board of Selectmen – both Selectmen Sheila McCreven and David Vogel agreed to serve – to create a Strategic Plan to help direct the Board’s priorities for the future. Financial stability is a major pillar of that plan, and we will soon have ideas on how to move us toward that goal. I anticipate sharing a draft plan at next month’s Annual Town Meeting.
Another way in which we are working toward a stronger financial future is by getting municipal waste costs under control. Currently we pay $65.75 per ton to dispose of Town trash. Our contract with Wheelabrator runs through 2024. It is estimated that when our contract is due to be renewed, we could be paying twice that amount. We are working now to divert waste in preparation of these increases.
In the past few years, we have purchased and installed a scale at the Transfer Station and instituted a tip fee for private haulers. All our neighboring towns charge haulers to bring trash to their transfer station, but in the past Woodbridge did not. The tip fee covers the Town’s cost of transporting and disposing of our municipal waste.
Additionally, this year, the Board of Selectmen instituted a fee for disposal of bulky waste, such as furniture and appliances.
Just last month we also applied for a state grant that would help us institute a pilot program to further reduce household waste. If we are awarded the grant, the Town will invite interested residents to opt-in to a program that limits the number of trash bags residents can use and will include curbside food waste pickup. Other towns that have tried this program have seen significant savings due to a reduction in trash.
We have and always will place a high value on public education of our Town’s children, both at the Beecher Road School for grades pre-K through six, and in the Amity Regional District schools for grades 7 through 12.
Our budget continues to fund the resources that are necessary to ensure the outstanding quality of our school programs and support the teachers and staff members at Beecher. Furthermore, the Town and Beecher administration continue to collaborate, consolidate services, and find ways to share costs.
We are looking carefully at additional ways to save taxpayer money while maintaining top-quality, locally controlled educational services to all Woodbridge children. I am proud that, despite our sometimes-differing viewpoints, we always work together amicably. I thank both Boards of Education for working so hard to achieve what is best for our students and our taxpayers.
The State of Connecticut has mandated a benchmark which requires 10% of all housing in each municipality be “affordable.” Currently, only 1.18 percent of Woodbridge homes qualify as affordable. It is our Town’s obligation to provide housing which is not exclusionary and is affordable.
Our Ad Hoc Housing Opportunity Study Committee is hard at work on an Affordable Housing Plan due to the State by June 1. This plan should help us find ways to move toward that 10% benchmark.
In 2020 the Town’s zoning laws were challenged. A zoning application alleged that our regulations were exclusionary, resulting in a lack of diversity in our population. Last year, in response, our Town Plan and Zoning commissioners did a thoughtful and excellent job balancing the need to provide multi-family and affordable housing with environmental concerns. Woodbridge Zoning Regulations now allow multiple housing units in residential areas, and more density is now allowed in areas with sewer and public water.
I have been focusing on funding quality-of-life improvements without increasing the tax burden. This year I have secured more than $3 million in State grant funding – $2 million to renovate the Old Firehouse, $425,000 total for the Senior Center renovations and $600,000 for sidewalks and pedestrian improvements in the Town Center.
The Old Firehouse building was damaged in a fire in 2006. Using insurance proceeds and a STEAP grant we completed design-neutral but necessary upgrades to the building, including a new roof and upgraded mechanicals. These new $2 million in State funds will finalize the project and convert the empty building in a community center for use by all residents with recreation and leisure programs and room rental for community organizations and individuals.
I am also hopeful that construction will begin this summer on the renovations to the Woodbridge Senior Center. This project is a result of years of planning and will help our seniors to remain healthy and engaged, which is of course, a critical goal for our aging population.
This winter we earned a nearly $600,000 Department of Transportation grant to install sidewalks connecting Amity Regional High School to the Town Center and to upgrade the asphalt sidewalk that goes around the library lawn.
These three projects together move the needle on our Town Center Campus Beautification Plan which envisions making our Town Center Campus a more beautiful, inviting, welcoming, safe and pedestrian-friendly space. Remaining projects in the Beautification Plan include additional outdoor seating, updated signage and improvements to the Center Gym.
This year we also finalized the Town’s first bike route, paid for by a campaign of private donations matched by a grant – thank you to all the donors!
Woodbridge has received $2.6 million through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. This is once-in-a-generation funding opportunity, and I strongly believe it should be used for once-in-a-generation, transformational projects. The Board of Selectmen will come up with a list of suggested projects and then ask you, the public, for feedback. Following that feedback the Board will decide our funding priorities for Woodbridge.
Some ideas contemplate using these funds to make improvements to the business district, adding ventilation to the Center Building so we can safely return to holding meetings and events in the Gym. I would also like to add a pavilion to the library lawn so that outdoor events have a covered space. I would also like to upgrade our aging playgrounds and/or make investments to the aging irrigation systems at our ballfields. These are just some of the ideas that have been presented to the Board of Selectmen.
I want to express my gratitude to ALL the residents of Woodbridge who have taken the time to reach out to me by phone, text, or email these past few years.