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Pulling the Plug on Trackside?

In the second tight budget year in a row residents and town officials have been analyzing the teen center's long term financial viability.

The sad truth of lean budget years is that even beneficial town entities come under scrutiny. This year the Trackside Teen Center is enduring that unpleasant honor from residents and town officials alike.

Founded in 2004, Trackside's mission was and is to serve as a hub for "age-appropriate" teen activity in the community. But its difficulties in fund-raising, coupled with an increasing percentage of its operating costs being supplied by municipal funding, is leaving some unsure of its long-term financial viability.

"The thing that bothers me about their budget this year is that the percentage of funding coming from the town, as a percentage of their total, is up," said Board of Finance Lynne Vanderslice during a meeting between the Board of Finance and Selectmen last week. "I made the comment last year that they needed to do more fund-raising...and I'm disappointed that we're not seeing that."

To Vanderslice's point, Wilton will fund $143,963 or 53 percent of Trackside's expenses in fiscal year 2010 as of data from November of last year. In its 2011 budget request, Trackside has asked for the same amount of town funding but forecasts its income to decrease around $5,000, increasing the percentage to 54 percent.

Perhaps more troubling is the longer term trend evident here. In 2007, the town contributed 37 percent of Trackside's operating income ($103,747). In 2008, that number rose to a high of 56 percent ($134,268) and then fell to 42 percent in 2009 ($134,842). To see it rising again in '10 and '11 is not encouraging, though not entirely unexpected due to the effects of the country's ailing economy.

"This is a tough environment and all I can say is that they are doing their best," said First Selectman Bill Brennan. "They know better than anyone else that the pressure's on...we don't have a lot for kids to do in this town and it fills a need...I'm reluctant to pull the plug prematurely and then be regretful later."

Brennan indicated that he has been encouraged by Trackside's new leadership and also pointed out that the surrounding towns that have had success with their own teen centers had to wait around ten years before they caught on and started becoming self-sufficient. Selectman Ted Hoffstatter, the board's new representative to Trackside, also said that the value the town receives from the center far outweighs its price tag.

"I think for what we spend on Trackside, we get a lot back," he said. "The fact that it is student-run, I can say as an educator, is very important...and as much as I want to see money trimmed everywhere we can, I just don't want to go to them because I think they're improving."

Wilton's monetary contribution to Trackside covers the center's two full-time and one part-time employees, as well as its cleaning staff. In the 2011 budget proposal, for instance, the town's $143,963 will cover salaries of $60,160 for Trackside's executive director, $38,493 for its program manager, $22,422 for its development director and $16,800 for the cleaning staff, plus another $5,000 for event staffing, payroll and tax filing fees, and worker's comp insurance.

The center's total projected expenses for fiscal year 2011 amount to $315,404, the highest they've been since 2007, while its gross profit is projected to fall around $45,000 to $258,673 in 2011 from a 2009 high of $303,414 (as of November, the center's gross profit for 2010 was on pace to end the year around $228,000, about $45,000 below the budgeted total).

Trackside's greatest sources of income in 2011, outside of Wilton's municipal contribution, are anticipated to be approximately $40,000 from donations and grants and $46,500 from special events. It is the former of these two figures that concerns some, considering that from 2007 on, Trackside has raised around $93,000 ('07), $33,000 ('08), $123,000 ('09), $44,000 (estimated '10) and is budgeting for only $40,000 worth of revenue coming from grants and donations in 2011.

"I've long been a proponent of Trackside and I've always thought as a town that we needed to err on the side of giving it whatever time and resources it needs to be successful," said selectman Jim Meinhold at the two boards' meeting. "But it doesn't seem to me, and certainly they're trying hard and trying different things, but they're not having much success, outside of band nights at least."

The caveat to Trackside's revenue struggles, of course, is that with many residents dealing with tight finances and no wage increases (and with others losing their jobs altogether), most charitable organizations have had difficulty fund-raising. And to the center's credit, they counted around 6,000 teen visits last year (for perspective, the 2000 census indicates Wilton as having somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 teenagers in its ranks), it had open hours after 180 school days, seven band nights, two dance parties, five movies nights and hosted a variety of sports team banquets, board meetings, rehearsals, blood drives, you name it. So, there is certainly no paucity of Trackside activity.

But to have grant and donation income fall from a 2009 high of $123,000 to about a third of that two years in a row has given many pause when considering the center's future. Meinhold asked both the Boards of Selectmen and Finance if there were certain benchmarks or measurements that the town could put in place that would indicate when it might be time to pull back municipal funding if Trackside wasn't meeting goals.

No one had a specific answer and most members conceded that, considering the large investment the town and certain community members have already made on its behalf and the extenuating economic circumstances, Trackside should be given leeway. Brennan echoed these sentiments.

"I don't think that this is the type of decision where you say 'at this number, we're out of here,'" he said. "If we see the trend not picking up in the future, then perhaps we'll have to revisit the issue."

ap duffy March 19, 2010 at 02:48 PM
Thank you Christian for this interesting article. As a mom of three Wilton teens, it seems Trackside is certainly picking up steam with 6,000 teen visits last year. That is fantastic usage! It means on average, on any given day, there are 16.4 fewer teens aimlessly roaming the streets of Wilton. I predict as the band nights, etc. heat up this spring, usage will only grow. So far this year, we have attended a highly successful sport team fundraiser, the girl's ice hockey banquet, have donated blood, dropped my kids off to multiple band nights and dances and SAT prep classes, and the place always seems to be hopping and happy. Let's not drop the ball on this important town resource, that has managed to provide superb and diverse services to a growing constituent base on a shoe string budget. The $9k increase is nothing compared to what the town would have to spend if we pulled the plug and then had to maintain an abandoned facility...which would likely continue to attract teens and become a hazard rather than a refuge. Likewise with any person or organisation in their formative stage,with a little nurturing, patience and support , Trackside is on track to become another town jewel, on par with our beautiful Library. Please let's give this nascent "teen" a little more time to mature into its full potential. Pulling the plug on Trackside would be like pulling the plug on our youth...not a smart move in any economic scenario.

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