City Council passes final FY21 budget

WESTFIELD – The City Council voted on the Orders of Appropriation at a Special Meeting June 29 before passing the final Fiscal Year 2021 budget on a vote of 10 to 3, with Councilors Dan Allie, Dave Flaherty and Nicholas J. Morganelli Jr. voting “no.”

“Overall I’m pleased. As difficult as it was a budget year, because of the coronavirus and Commonwealth, I’m pleased with the process and happy that my first budget passed 10 to 3,” said Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. after the meeting.

The orders of appropriation included approvals of the Enterprise Funds in the city, which are the accounts with money paid for by other sources or raised by fees charged in exchange for service. These accounts include the Water Department, Sewer, Stormwater, the Ambulance Fund, the Community Preservation Account, and PEG (Public, Education and Government) community access.

Also passed were the appropriations for Workers Compensation and Unemployment for FY21.

A $20,000 appropriation to the OPEB (Other Post Employees Benefit) account generated a discussion.

At-large Councilor Flaherty, a proponent of setting aside funds for the OPEB obligation, said the amount was “so ridiculously low, I don’t see why we’re even bothering,” to which Ward 1 Councilor  Morganelli concurred, calling it “insufficient.” The vote was the closest of the night, ultimately passing at 7 to 6, with Councilors Brent B. Bean II, Michael Burns, Ralph J. Figy, Flaherty, Morganelli and Richard K. Sullivan Jr. voting no.

When it came time to pass the FY21 Budget as a whole, several councilors took the time to comment on the process and state their reasons for voting for or against the budget.

“I’m going to be a no as you know,” Flaherty said, adding that he did want to give credit to the Mayor due to the difficult process. “There are significant obligations not just from the past mayor, but from many mayors going back,” Flaherty said. He noted that the budget contains a 2.5 percent tax increase while a lot of people and businesses are hurting.

Flaherty said the budget does not contain adequate funding for road repair or the schools. “We have yet again kicked the can down the road, and we are passing on our obligations to our kids down the road,” he said, adding that the councilors would see motions from him regarding next year’s budget at the July 2 CIty Council meeting.

“I’m going to be a no vote, first because it raises taxes and lays off workers,” said Allie. He said he appreciated all of the effort that went into the budget, but called it a “train wreck,” and said he was a no vote at the FY20 budget with contracts the city couldn’t afford.

“Revenue from new growth barely covers the increases in our obligations,” Allie said, adding that the city needs a written plan to fund OPEB with regular contributions.

“I am a yes vote on this budget, not without reservations,” said Figy, chairman of the Finance Subcommittee. He said when he and the mayor started working on the budget in December, neither thought it would be this drastic. He agreed that the $20,000 for OPEB is a “pittance,” but said it was only there because Flaherty has insisted on regular contributions to the fund.

“The 2.5 percent tax increase I hope will be reduced in November when more revenues come in, on the school side and the city side. This budget was probably the hardest thing to do because nobody knew what the revenues were,” Figy added.

At-large Councilor Kristen Mello said she agreed with everything that had been said, including the hard work on the budget by the department heads and the mayor. “A lot of this was set before we got here. I don’t see how this is anything more than seeing the city can operate,” Mello said.

Ward 3 Councilor Bridget Matthews-Kane also spoke about her first budget process. “The challenges have been amplified by COVID-19, which forced the city to cut back. This is not the year we would have imagined,” she said, adding that she would be voting for the budget, although it was not the way she would prioritize spending.

“I am pleased that the City Council was able to move $1.5 million in free cash to the schools. Children are our most precious resources. I was really heartened to see so many people, especially young people standing up during the public portion. As someone who wants more transparency and participation, this was heartening,’ Matthews-Kane added. She said for the residents that wrote to cut the police department budget, it would have been a symbolic cut. She said if the city were to reimagine the local Police Department, it should be based on its own numbers and programs.

“I will be voting for the budget,” said At-large Councilor James R. Adams. He said “obviously,” the numbers were not where they needed to be. He said he wasn’t willing to fund OPEB if it meant losing teachers in the School Department.

Adams also spoke about comparing Westfield to other cities, in response to a comment by Flaherty that Westfield shouldn’t be comparing itself to others. “I will look at other cities to see what they’re doing to fund OPEB, because that’s what the state is doing. I think we all are trying to do the best for the city,” he said.

Adams also talked about the city contracts. He said the contracts are the result of practices started years ago. “We haven’t made any changes along the way. I think we need to start making changes now,” he said, adding that he agreed the roads in Westfield are in “tough shape,” but, “I’m not willing to cut teachers and schools. I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”

“I just want to reiterate that a 2.5% (tax) increase is not set in stone; many opportunities that could change, that could be lowered. Hopefully, it will be,” said At-large Councilor Cindy C. Harris.

Morganelli said he thought the committee and the mayor did a good job, but underfunded schools and roads. He also said in his opinion the top heavy salaries in the city are “out of control,” and he looked forward to spearheading a finance summit this fall or winter. “I’m hoping to tap these things to get us in better shape for the future,” Morganelli said, before the 10 to 3 vote was taken,

After the meeting, Council President Brent B. Bean, II called the budget process this year “one of the hardest years to date. I give a lot of credit to the School Committee and the City Council for their work on this year’s budget,” he said, adding that they heard from a lot of the members during the process, “and most of the time the answer was ‘no.’ “

“The Commonwealth needs to start understanding that all cities and towns are struggling and the way they fund us isn’t working. We need to start making it easier for businesses in Massachusetts, in both the private and public sectors. That includes the permitting process and the cost of bricks and mortar. The cost to pave a road, build a new school or maintain our water and sewer infrastructure is criminal,” Bean said, adding, “Maybe our Governor and his finance team need to sit on one of our school committee and city council seats for him to realize.”

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