WESTFIELD – Over a nine-hour marathon Thursday, beginning at 6 p.m. and ending just before 3 a.m., members of the City Council took up the challenge by residents who spoke at the public hearing, and went line by line through the fiscal year 2020 budget ultimately making approximately $1.02 million in cuts to the budget request of $132,322,794.
Half of the cuts were in health insurance benefits ($271,248) and contributory retirement ($250,000). In 2019, Mayor Brian P. Sullivan had cut $1 million in health insurance benefits after several good years among city employees. That changed earlier in the month, when the mayor requested an allocation of just under $1 million from swept accounts and Free Cash to pay bills in fiscal year 2019, and restored $1 million in health insurance in the 2020 budget.
“We’ve had good years. This year, not so much,” he said at the June 12 City Council meeting, adding that there have been a couple of large health insurance claims.
The cut in contributory retirement is approximately half of the increase requested over 2019.
During the meeting, At-large Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli, Jr. said many of the cuts were to increases in the budget. “We’re not making cuts, we’re trying to make reductions in the increases. We all need to do our share,” he said, adding that the late budget submission by the mayor and short notice on Finance budget review meetings were unfair to residents.
Another large item cut on Thursday was $157,153 for Fire Department vehicles. At the budget review on June 18, Fire Chief Patrick Egloff said a $177,153.05 lease payment on the newest tower truck was the final payment on that truck; the line item cut by the City Council.
At that meeting, Egloff also said that the department was in need of a new command vehicle, training vehicle, brush truck, rescue boat, and chief’s vehicle, to replace aging cars that had been re-purposed for the fire department’s use. Egloff said that the estimated cost of replacing all of those vehicles would be around $180,000, and that if the vehicle line item were cut, he would seek Free Cash funds to pay for the vehicles. A $50,000 cut was also made in the Highway equipment vehicle line item, previously at $183,302.
Other items cut included $10,000 in economic development, for the position left vacant by former City Advancement Officer Joe Mitchell; and $5,000 from the Westfield Redevelopment Authority’s budget of $20,000. Every line item in the mayor’s office was cut, in amounts ranging from $50 to $10,000.
Also reduced were purchase of service and overtime accounts in several departments.
However, no cuts were made to the School Department budget, which had been moved to the start of Thursday’s meeting by At-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi, III, who served as chair of the meeting in the absence of Brent B. Bean, II.
The school budget represented a zero increase to the city this year, due to an increase of $2.1 million in state aid through Chapter 70. Although several cuts were recommended by City Council members, all were defeated.
“The educational system is the cornerstone that makes Westfield. People will move to Westfield for a good educational system. It’s vitally important,” said Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski, who added that he had three daughters coming out of Westfield public schools who are doing very well.
“It is important to note that this year’s school budget does not require one tax dollar more than last year’s budget. The state is sending (an additional) $2.1 million to Westfield for the school, and we are using $1.9 million for its intended purpose, which is special education and insurance. We were responsible with the monies that were given to us and have set a budget consistent with the district’s priorities. The school budget was delivered in May, with plenty of time to review,” said School Committee vice-chair Ramon Diaz, Jr. following the meeting.
“We are very grateful that the Council voted to pass the school department budget at Thursday night’s meeting. These additional funds are coming to the city because the state has acknowledged that they have been underfunding public schools for over a decade. This budget cycle, the governor and the state legislature are attempting to compensate for some of these funding shortfalls by sending districts additional monies to help offset the costs of Special Education and Health Care. As a result, our school department’s budget does not require any additional city funding and in fact, provides an additional $600,000 in savings to the city in the next fiscal year. More importantly, we have more resources to improve educational experiences for all of our students. Thank you to all parents and staff that attended the meeting last night to show their support for our schools,” added Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski.