Bill Willis Interview:
This is file #48, cycle 2. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Mr. William Willis who is chairman of the Board of Finance. He is going to tell us this morning about his association with Founders Insurance Company. Then he is going to talk about the budget and how it is prepared. Then he is going to talk about the Civic Life Project that his son is involved in. but first we shall start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
BW:William F. Willis
JM:What is your birth date?
BW:It is august 3, 1948.
JM:Where were you born?
BW:Albany, New York
JM:Your parents’ names?
BW:John and Mary
BW:Donna, Cathy, John and Judy
JM:Your educational background after high school?
BW:I graduated with a BS degree from Central Connecticut State College and a minor in Political Science, a double Major.
JM:How did you come to the area?
BW:I worked for a US Congressman that represented this portion of Connecticut and got very familiar with the area. Working with the congressman I met Roberta my wife and we got married shortly after that. I don’t want to say shortly after that it took quite a while.
JM:How did you come to what used to be Wagner McNeil Insurance Company? (See tape #18 Tom Wagner)
BW:After I left the staff of the congressman, I pursued two political offices and unfortunately lost. You take a chance and if it happens, of if it doesn’t, you move on. A friend of mine that I had worked with recommended that I take a look at Metropolitan Insurance Company because he was an agent there. I went to work for Metropolitan in 1981. I worked there for three years. During that period of time I got a letter from Walt Shannon (See Celeste Shannon file #10) asking me if I ever wanted to switch, to give him a call. He would love to talk about it. I was commuting to Waterbury from Salisbury.
Well I felt why don’t I sit down with Walt and see what the opportunities are. The rest is history. I started working with Wagner McNeil in 1984. Here we are today 2017.
JM:When did Walt Shannon leave?
BW:I bought the agency in 1999 and then Walt stayed on for a couple of years. Then as things changed, he did not have to stay involved anymore. (He retired completely in 2009. Ed)
JM:He developed Alzheimer’s.
BW:Right so that was a major factor. He had such a wealth of insurance knowledge. It was so disheartening to see that institutional history being lost.
JM:I did an interview with Celeste Shannon (See file 10); a lot of that history has been saved. We went through as much background history as she knew. Every once and in a while she would throw a question to Walt and he would have the answer. That was really great.
BW: That is.
JM:What kind of insurance do you sell?
BW:The agency itself has quite a broad spectrum of insurance from personal insurance which is home and auto to commercial insurance from business owner policies to major insurance commercial package insurance policies. We also do group life and health insurance. We do have any type of insurance that people need we find it. We can do it here; we can do it all here. We are not only a local agency, we are also state wide and national and international. We are licensed in all 50 states. We can write policies anywhere in the country as well as overseas, if necessary. It depends on the situation.
BW:How has the agency changed since you bought it?
BW:A great deal has changed in terms of the use of Internet which is just a common occurrence in any business and any individual. There is so much information available on line. People want to communicate as quickly as possible. That is usually the quickest way to communicate through E-mail with your clients, with potential clients and back and forth. It appears to be a very convenient way of doing business. Since we are here in a small town we do have many of our clients come here and meet with us to discuss their insurance programs. We work on whatever details we have to work at. AS you know we have a number of people from Manhattan whom we insure, not only their place here but also their place in Manhattan and maybe another place in Florida or Colorado or something in that nature. They like working with a smaller agency and have that personal contact. The Internet or E-mail does not allow for that.
JM:No and the personal contact builds trust which you don’t have necessarily with the Internet.
BW:Oh no not at all. It depends on how you are conveying it and using it. We try to work very closely with our clients. We try to solve their issues.
JM:Have you merged with any other agencies?
BW:We bought 7 agencies and then as a lot of us were aging with the changing industry, the industry is really different. For someone to come in and say they want to start an agency that is very difficult or even impossible because of the requirements that the insurance companies put on you in reference to volume. So that is why we felt we had to keep expanding. Once we expanded to 7 it has just absorbed that type of expansion, really getting it worked out for a number of years which we did. We came to the point where what are we going to do? !. You couldn’t have someone from within the agency even attempt to purchase it because as you expand it just becomes more and more difficult. You can’t saddle someone with that kind of burden. Or you would not want to. Thus you have to look for a bigger entity that is interested. We looked very hard for a year and found an agency to work with. It’s assured partners and we are very satisfied with the relationship because we manage our agency right here. We have access to resources that you need if you want to keep your entity here. Right now the way the insurance companies operate, you just have to have volume and leverage. If you are a small mom and pop shop, you just don’t have it, but they are not going to be around for long. I can name 3 or 4 agencies here that were competitors that we have known for years; they have done the same thing. They have had too to survive. That is the big difference from when I first started with Wagner MacNeil.
JM:Are you still in this one location?
BW:WE do we have an office in Torrington. We used to have an office in Orange, Wes Haven, and Cheshire. As the Internet takes hold of everything, it becomes much more efficient to manage it out of 2 offices.
JM:What is the number of staff that you have here?
BW:Here we have 7- we have 6 and one of our staff is here one half of the week, so it is really 7.
JM:I was going to ask you the area you cover, but with the Internet it is unnecessary.
BW:Right our client base if really from this Tri-State area. Because of the natural of our clients itself we are well established in Manhattan.
JM:Future plans to expand or are you happy where you are?
BW:We can’t expand any more than what we are now. We are quite large. It is just being able to manage it.
JM:Is there anything you would like to add before we move on?
BW:Do I want to add anything? I can say that our staff is very top notch. They are all licensed and every two years they have to continue their ongoing education. If they wish to pursue higher education in terms of the insurance field, they have help. We really want to improve our staff and they are very good. They know their stuff inside and out. That is what makes an agency function smoothly.
JM:Sure and the fact that you have been an established firm for a long time. (Tom Wagner was selling insurance before 1970. Ed.) People know you and trust you. It is a win-win situation.
JM:Now with a political background, how did you get involved with the Board of Finance?
BW:Once I settled here permanently in Salisbury and since I had worked up here through the local congressman in this area and knew the First Selectman in each town and the State Reps in this area and the Senators, I just knew the area quite well. People knew me. Then I had young kids going through the grammar school system so they asked me if I would be one to serve on the Board of Education. I did. I ran for office, and served on the Board of Education for 12 years.
JM:Do you remember the years roughly?
BW:It would be like 1985-1997. Patti Williams would have the exact dates. So after 12 years you want to move on because you want to give other people an opportunity to step in, especially on the Board of Ed. since it is quite involved. All boards are quite involved. That is what got me moving in the direction of Board of Finance. The town committee came and asked if I would be willing to run for the Board of finance. I said sure, I’ll run and won’t win anyway because at that time it was very difficult. Low and behold I won by 4 votes. It was so weird that way.
JM:That would have been when?
BW:Probably somewhere in the range of 1998 and I have been on the board ever since. I was vice chairman to Carl Williams (see tape #111 Carl Williams). Once Carl stepped down, I became chairman. It has been an excellent board to work with because of the people who are on it.
JM:Who are some of the people that are on the board?
BW:There is Don Mayland (See file 77 Don Mayland) Matt Kiefer, (See file 3, cycle 2 Matt Kiefer) Chris Williams, Michael Clulow, and Carol Dmytryshak.
JM:How many are actually on the board?
BW:There are 6 of us.
JM:Do you have a term of office?
BW:Yes, it is a 6 year term.
JM:In order to develop the budget for the town, can you tell me the process? When do you start and what are the various steps that you take to do the budget?
BW:Well we start the process or at least the notification that the budget process is beginning with the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education. AT that time all I need is our schedule for …The key element is the initial budgets from the two boards. That usually takes place in March. We review those budget proposals with the board of Ed and the board of Selectmen. We do not tell them where to p[lace their money. If it is a little top heavy, we tell them right there. You have to try to look at areas where you can reduce without jeopardizing many of the programs that you are trying to pursue. At times we have to look at the income that is coming in.
JM:Where do you get your income from?
BW:We get it from taxes. We do receive grants, fees, and building permits which usually comes up to about between 1.5 and 1.6 million. Then from taxes we receive somewhere between 13 and 14 million. We try to look at that budget and determine what budget is going to work. We do not want the tax burden overwhelming and we try to
In April we get the final Board of Ed and the Selectmen’s budget, after we have recommended cuts. We don’t go into specific line items. We do not say you must cut here. We will give an approximate number for them to work with. We can’t to that of the Board of Ed budget anyway; we have no authority, we can just say you have to cut $60,000. With the Board of Selectmen we can designate specific line items, but we try not to do that. We want them to manage their programs without butting in and saying you have to cut here when maybe they could reduce some money elsewhere to save that program. We avoid that even though we have the authority.
JM:Do you have public information meetings?
BW:Yes all our meetings are open to the public. We do have a public hearing in April. The final budget of the Board of Ed and Board of Selectmen is presented to the Finance Board. These are then voted on to send to a public hearing. We approve the final budgets. We present that at a public hearing to get input. After that public hearing the board of finance do meet and discuss the public hearing and what the comments were from the public- what support there was or opposition. This helps us make the final determination as to what we are going present at the town meeting. The town meeting is in May. That is where we have our final presentation of the budget. Then the people at the town meeting vote on it.
JM:Is the budget vote at the town meeting written or oral or show of hands?
BW:It is a paper ballot for verification plus any budgeted item that is over $20,000 must go to town meeting. There is a threshold where you must have a paper ballot on what that expenditure would be.
JM:Does the Comptroller have any input?
BW:We meet with the town comptroller throughout this process. He is collecting quite a bit of data, financial data. (See Joe Cleaveland File #27) We also get quite a bit at least from the prior year from our audited financial standing. That is an independent audit. We have a great deal of background information, but our comptroller does quite a yeoman’s job in terms of collecting all this data and getting it ready for us so we can review it and determine an equitable mill rate.
JM:What is a mill rate? How do you set it?
BW:The mill rate is based on the assessed value of properties in town. (See also Barbara Bigos, Town Assessor, file #53). (See also Jean Bell, Tax Collector file #52) Right now as an example we have a 10.7 mill rate that means for every $1,000 of assessed value, the tax is $10.70. The medium assessment is approximately $350,000. If you are below that, you pay less and if you are above that you pay more. That is how we set it. It is a long process.
JM:Then it is the Board of Finance that sets the mill rate?
JM:The tax bills come out the end of June.
BW:They will go out in the beginning of June. Then they will be due July 1 at the beginning of the new tax year.
JM:When does a referendum happen?
BW:The referendum will happen at any time. Anybody can force a referendum by presenting the appropriate number is signatures to the Board of Selectmen.
JM:How many signatures do you have to have?
BW:I believe that it is 200. You can confirm that with Patty. Once that is presented and is verified and presented to the Board of Selectmen, they are required to call a referendum on the budget. I can’t recall exactly when that petition has to be in. We just haven’t had any in years. There may have been one over 10 years ago. With the Region #1 Board that is automatic.
JM:Have I left anything out?
BW: There is a lot to do and go through when you get to the Board of Finance.
JM:I don’t want to make it too heavy.
BW:That is the basics. We are responsible for doing an independent audit on all the finances of the town and the Board of Ed because you want to make sure that everything is on the up and up.
JM: It is a complicated process.
BW:Correct so we hire an independent auditor who works with the comptroller and the Board of Ed. Secretary to collect all the data and for her to review it thoroughly and then come back with the audited financial statements which we present to the town for approval in February.
JM:Is there anything else you would like to add to this section before we go on?
BW:Right now no.
JM:Civic Life Project, what is it?
BW:The Civic Life Project Dominic Lasseur and his wife Katherine Tatge were the ones who came up with the concept. They started the documentary film makers. They are quite well known in the documentary field.
JM:When did they start this project at the Regional High School?
BW:It has to be more than 10 years ago. It is a way of getting students involved in civics, especially in the local community or in the local area where they would take on an issue. They then get out and do the basic research on the issue and come up with the questions to conduct interviews with key people that are involved in this issue. This could involve a mayor or selectman or a non -profit group or the school or on the state level the State Representative or Lt. Governor. It really is quite involved. They do do quite a job. My son had volunteered to help them out since he had been doing film work down in New Mexico. When he came back east, he decided that he had this background and he volunteered. He was going to Quinnipiac on a film program down there. He got involved; they felt he was quite qualified so they hired him. He was the key person who went out to meet with the students to develop the issue with them and get them pointed in the right direction and help them with the research and the questions and helping them set up the interviews with key people that are involved with the issue in their local community or state wide. Then the students learned how to do an interview and film it and then follow up with editing. The students that participated and I have met with several of them, are quite enthusiastic about it. They get involved and they indicated that they learned more than they had ever done.
JM:You learn by doing.
BW:So my son really enjoys this; he helps out right now, but he is full time teacher at one of the private schools in Kent, Marvelwood. Ben had worked there on a similar project with them. He felt that they needed someone like that. He does still work with the Civic Life Project.
JM:About how many students participate each year?
BW:I know they have 14 high schools; so they may have 8-10 students per school. I do not know how extensive it is now since Ben had to leave.
JM:When they produce this documentary, where is it showcased? Where do they get their feedback from the public?
BW:They do have an initial program at Housatonic where they show it at and also at Noble Horizons with invited guests from around the area who sit and meet with them on an individual basis. There are key groups who have been working on this. They do show their final documentaries at the State Capitol in Hartford and also at the Millerton Movie House where the general public has the opportunity to see the work done. It is not just one school; it could be 7 showing here. The students are there to answer questions on their document, and how they developed it and how they got to the point with the issues they were concerned about.
JM:Well done. Is there anything else that you would like to add to this interview, in general?
BW:No I think I have done it.
JM:You think you have gotten everything there that you want to.
BW:I am sure I will come up with other things later.
JM:Thank you so very much.