WESTFIELD – At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty was successful in one of four recommendations for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget at the council’s reconciliation meeting on June 24.
Flaherty’s successful proposal sought to cut $1 million from construction in the Engineering Department budget. “Things that are capital can be paid from stabilization costs,” Flaherty said, adding, “It’s an easy, justifiable thing. We can cover the $1 million reduction from stabilization with the hope that the mayor would resubmit with a stabilization request.” The proposal passed 7 to 5.
Flaherty’s unsuccessful proposals included moving five firefighters who had been budgeted to be paid from the Ambulance Enterprise Fund back to the Fire Department budget, and instead charging benefits and insurance for firefighters and the cost of public safety dispatch ambulance calls to the Ambulance fund. He also made a corresponding request to move $150,000 of the savings in the general budget, expected to be approximately $500,000, to the Flood Control Commission for repairs at the Little River Levee.
At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said he would be a no vote. “I have a problem raiding this account that we buy trucks and ambulances and the latest equipment with. I don’t want to see this happening with an ambulance fund and our ambulance service. Taking it out of this fund long-term is not a good move for the city,” he said. This motion failed 5 to 7.
Also failing by a 5 to 7 vote was a second attempt by Flaherty to cut the School Department’s proposed budget by $300,000. The first attempt came at the school budget review at the Council on June 10, which was also defeated.
A fourth proposal by Flaherty was to cut $100,000 out of the Purchasing Department’s line item for electrical costs. He said the bill for street lights has remained over $300,000, with no savings shown from the installation of LED lighting. “We’ve asked to make sure the bill is accurate,” he said.
Sullivan said he followed up the Westfield Gas & Electric, and said the bill remained high while the city was paying off the cost of the lighting replacement. “Supposedly there will be a significant savings reflected in next year’s budget, because the capital costs have been paid off. I’m going to be a no, but I think you’ll see significant savings,” he said.
Flaherty then withdrew the motion based on the new information. He said that would be his last cut, and he would continue to be a no vote on the budget.
Sullivan then remarked on the budget review process. “We had wonderful attendance from all the councilors on the Committee of the Whole meetings. I think I can say that on behalf of the chair,” he said, speaking for Finance Committee Chair Ralph J. Figy, who was out of town.
“I don’t disagree they were useful, but there was no focus and no plans at those meetings. Two or three cut suggestions out of hours of meetings. The council didn’t get together, there was no real effort made to change this budget by anyone. If we’re going to do that, we may as well just accept the budget as submitted,” Flaherty said.
“This committee as a whole, clearly there was cooperation with the mayor’s office because we had everybody in the room. We get more input this way than at individual meetings when nobody comes,” said Ward 5 Councilor John J. Beltrandi III.
Allie called the situation with the budget “baked into the cake” with contractual agreements. “We can’t even grow our way out of the problem,” he said, adding that to control spending, you have to control payroll. “We’ve got to be able to control our labor costs,” he said.
Council President Brent B. Bean II called the amount of money that the city has this year in free cash and stabilization “unbelievable,” and said there is more and more money coming from federal and state sources, even for dams and levees. “I think we could have been more creative on how to make things work and happen and create funding for projects that have been outside for years,” he said, adding, “We’re flush with money right now.”
Ward 1 Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli Jr. said he would also be a no on the budget along with Flaherty.
“It seems every time we go through the budget process, the conclusion is that a lot of it is out of our control because of union contracts, salary, and benefits. “I really think one of the things we need to think about going forward is what is the cap on a salary for police chief, fire chief, any type of department head. What is a pay increase that’s respectable or deserved, especially if you’re in public safety and saving lives on a daily basis. I’m all for supporting teachers, firefighters and police, I’ve always said that. But we can’t keep spending the public’s money like this. Going forward, we really need to have some discussions about a plan. Flaherty’s right, what is our plan for the next 3, 5, 20 years. To stay fiscally healthy, we need to be fiscally responsible. That said, I’m going to be a no, not just based on the decisions this year but on past years,” he said.
At-large Councilor Kristen L. Mello said if it weren’t for the $1 million cut on the table, she would be a no. ”I feel this is an exceptionally bad idea to pass a budget that does not have emergency management and flood control as a priority. There are departments with unfilled positions that are larger than the entire emergency management budget,” she said.
Flaherty said it’s not a $1 million budget cut, because it’s going to get funded out of free cash or stabilization.
The reconciliation of the budget then passed on a vote of 9 to 3, with Allie, Flaherty and Morganelli voting no. The final vote on the fiscal year 2021 budget, reflecting cuts and transfers, will be taken at a Special Council meeting scheduled for June 28 at 6 p.m.