City Council balks at $10M price tag

WESTFIELD – The City Council last night approved the first reading of a $10 million bond to fund the next phase of the city’s Energy Management Services (EMS) program designed to reduce the municipal energy footprint.
The council slated the second reading and final passage for March 21, their second meeting of that month because their Monday session, postponed from Thursday, does not allow the time for public notice and legal advertising required to vote on the bond at their March 7 session.
Several councilors said the delay is a benefit because it give the council time to request further information about the cost of the bond and how those payments will impact other future spending priorities, such as a new elementary school, which will cost the city about $13 million of the $36 million project, and a senior center with a projected cost of $6 million.
Ward 1 Councilor Christopher Keefe, chairman of the Legislative & Ordinance Committee said that phase 2-a of the energy conservation program actually has a cost of $12 million, but $2 million of that amount are contained in another bond being converted to the EMS funding.
Keefe said that half of that $12 million funding, $4.5 million, is being used to complete renovation of the physical plant of City Hall, while most of the remaining funds are to be used for projects at Westfield High School and the upper campus of Westfield Vocational Technical High School.
Keefe said the city has already spent $1 million to replace the roof of City Hall.
“There will be some minor energy savings at City Hall, but not the large savings we’ve seen in other buildings that almost immediately pay for those improvements,” Keefe said. “We have a decision to make and this is a big one. If we spend this money this will be the location of city government for the next 50 years.”
Several councilors have argued that it would be cheaper to construct a new municipal building at another location and move out of the Court Street facility that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.
At-large Councilor David Flaherty said that the “math just doesn’t work” when the bond is added to future bonding for high priority projects, such as the elementary school, runway improvements to Barnes Regional Airport, senior center and other projects to boost the city’s economy. The council earlier in the Monday session approved a $1.1 million bond for the Barnes runway project, with new airport revenue financing the bond cost.
“I’d like to have the City Auditor and City Treasurer come in to explain how we’re going to pay for all of these bonds,” Flaherty said.
Keefe countered that it is not “the job or jurisdiction” of those city officers to to explain the financial plan to finance city debt.
“It should be the executive branch, the mayor and his financial team, providing an explanation,” Keefe said. “I don’t think your request is going in the right direction.”
Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell said the fact that the council cannot vote on the bond issue at the March 7 meeting “gives us an opportunity to get an idea on where we stand on bonding,” then made a motion to request a report from the Treasurer on the long range cost of the current, pending and anticipated bond issues.
Flaherty said that he’d “like to have the mayor send someone to tell us how we’re paying for all of this, where that money is coming from. We need this information before we vote.”
Flaherty said that projected new revenue growth for the upcoming fiscal 2014 year is between $2.5 and $3 million, but the cost of the proposed bonds is equal to that amount, leaving little for other municipal spending. Flaherty said that the School Department will need an additional $2 million in the 2014 budget, putting the city’s funding requirement at near $5 million, twice the projected new revenue.
Council President Brian Sullivan ended the discussion of the motions and requested the council’s Finance Committee to request that information from city officials prior to the March 7 meeting, encouraging all councilors to attend the Finance Committee meeting on the subject.
“I’m asking the Finance Chairman (Ward 5 Councilor Richard E. Onofrey Jr.) to request these people to come into his committee and that he hold the meeting prior to out next council meeting,” Sullivan said.

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