WESTFIELD – Members of the City Council voted ad nauseam on end of the year financial matters, voting to add about $210,000 to the budget, voting to cut funding from two enterprise departments, voting to appropriate money for land takings, and voting more than 25 times to finalize the city’s financial status before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
However, there was no vote on the city’s proposed 2013 budget, the $111,269,016 budget financed through local property and excise taxes and through state and federal aid.
That vote did not occur because the City Charter and Council Rules state that there must be unanimous consent by council members to act on a financial matter at one meeting. Those rules require that financial issues, orders, and ordinance changes be voted upon at two session of the city’s legislative branch.
Typically, and under the charter and rules, an issue is introduced with the first reading at one meeting, and then brought out for second reading and final passage at the next session.
The council conducted a special meeting last night to deal with the financial issues which needed to be addressed before the end of the current fiscal year. The problem is that the state open meeting law requires 48 hours to post a meeting, meaning that the council could not meet again before Saturday.
The charter and rules do allow the council to waive that two-meeting requirement by suspending the rules, if nobody objects.
At-large Councilor David A. Flaherty did object, bringing the vote of the municipal budget to a screeching halt.
Flaherty requested a recess before voting against suspending the rules to discuss the impact of his action with Council President Christopher Keefe and Second City Solicitor Shanna Reed.
The impact of that action is that Mayor Daniel M. Knapik’s budget automatically takes effect Sunday, July 1.
Flaherty’s action was purely symbolic since the council members had made no changes to amend Knapik’s budget earlier this week. The Finance Committee, which met Monday, had no budget cut recommendations and the entire council membership, meeting Tuesday as a Committee of the Whole did not make any changes to the municipal budget submitted by Knapik.
“The outcome is the same whether we vote on this or don’t vote,” Flaherty said, as he objected to suspending the rules.
“I don’t think it’s a great budget,” he said.
Flaherty said that he was objecting to the fact that under state law the executive branch is required to submit an appropriation for bargaining unit agreements to the legislative branch for approval or rejection. Flaherty said that if the appropriation is rejected, the executive branch returns to the bargaining table to rework the contract terms.
“I’ve made five requests for that and have not received a response,” Flaherty said. “We’re stuck with the budget, about 80 percent of which we can’t touch. The city is in much worse financial shape than years ago, has much higher level of debt, so I’m going to vote “no” to suspend the rules.”
Ward 5 Councilor Richard E. Onofrey Jr., chairman of the Finance Committee which has met twice a week for the past month to review departmental budgets with officials, said, “We don’t have enough time to have a second meeting before the end of the fiscal year.”
“Just letting the mayor’s budget go in says we’re not necessary, it sets a very bad precedent,” Onofrey said.
Flaherty argued that the union contracts recently approved by Knapik are unsustainable in the long term.
“I don’t know why we can’t enforce state law which gives us the authority, requires us to be part of that process,” Flaherty said. “By approving this, we’re endorsing the mayor’s budget. We’ve had zero impact on this budget.”
The next several issues pertained to the city’s enterprise departments which generate revenue through fees. Onofrey made motions to modify the Water Department and Wastewater Treatment Plant budgets, which by law cannot exceed the revenue for the current year. The money cut from the operating budget of those departments is returned to the department’s reserve account and is available for appropriation later in the fiscal year.
At-large Councilor Brian Sullivan abstained on all five of those votes. Keefe, as allowed to under the council’s rules, asked Sullivan to explain his reason for abstaining from the votes.
“I’m abstaining because it’s a travesty that I did not get to vote on the city’s budget,” Sullivan said. “I apologize (to the council and president), but that is how I feel. This has been a ridiculous night.”
For video of the city council meeting, click here.