WESTFIELD – The June 25 Finance Committee meeting of the whole began with a moment of silence. “We lost a coworker and friend of ours, Sue Phillips, recently,” said Council President Brent B. bean II, calling for the pause. Later in the meeting, the City Council passed the Fiscal Year 2021 budget by majority vote.
First, Bean conducted the continued public hearing on the budget, asking that names and addresses of emails that were sent be read into the record by City Clerk Karen M. Fanion.
Several callers participated, including two residents with concerns about the police budget, and Police Chief Lawrence Valliere and Capt. Michael McCabe in response.
A letter concerning the budget process and the need to cut the budget and to be fiscally responsible from former Councilor Andrew K. Surprise was read in its entirety by At-large Councilor Kristen Mello.
Following the public hearing, Bean turned the meeting over the Finance subcommittee chair Ralph J. Figy for the budget portion of the meeting.
Figy made a motion for immediate consideration and approval of $611 in excess levy capacity generated by cutting the Off-Street Parking Commissioners budget by $2,150 and moving to to Animal Control, full time salaried account be approved.
Ward 3 Councilor Bridget Matthews-Kane asked for the reason behind the transfer.
Figy said the Finance committee couldn’t act on the Animal Control budget because of a discrepancy in numbers. “This would bring the budget into balance,” Figy said.
“You just heard the phrase, related to taxes. The $611 is coming from excess taxes. We’re going to Proposition 2 ½. We will increase taxes beyond capacity, but not a whole lot,” said At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty. The question passed, with Flaherty voting no.
Asked if there were any other budgetary considerations from councilors, Mello said she has been thinking about the $200,000 that cannot be used for the Tekoa Dam, which had been reported by the Public Works director. “Can it go to another problem that needs addressing,” she asked.
Figy said that could be made as an interdepartmental transfer.
Matthews-Kane asked whether the needed computer system upgrade for the assessor had been addressed. “Before I took office, I went to a Zoning, Planning and Development subcommittee meeting. The Assessor came and spoke about how her computer system wasn’t going to be supported, and that it’s absolutely critical. She was 100% sure it would not be supported,” Matthews-Kane said, adding that she did not see the line item in the budget.
“We funded that computer upgrade system through Free Cash,” Figy said.
Bean spoke about a current discussion regarding Emergency Management in the city. “There is a discussion about the Emergency Management side of the house and how the city will move forward with those costs and personnel. It’s something we should pay attention to, something we should put on our radar as we move forward,” Bean said.
Figy asked for any other questions, concerns, or comments.
“There’s a lot of line items in the budget that we have not discussed. The one I’ll bring up is the pension plan. I think we have to look at the pension schedule. We’re at $11 million this year, which compounded in five years will be $19 million. I don’t think we should be ignoring those, we should be working on them throughout the year,” Flaherty said.
Flaherty also spoke about the Long Range Finance committee’s discussion with the auditor on June 24. “He thinks we’ll be ok next year, but FY23 is a real wake-up call potentially. Another thing he brought up is changing health care for retirees.I just want to remind everybody that we still need to vote on these items. I think we’ll have a long list on Monday,” Flaherty said.
After expressing confusion about the defunding police conversation, Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli Jr. spoke about salaries.
“The top eight salaried positions in the Police Department and Fire Department, those 16 positions alone total roughly $2M. That’s something we can’t sustain,” Morganelli said, suggesting that salary caps should be considered. Later he added that his comment goes across the board for a lot of the management and department heads in the city.
At-large Councilor Dan Allie said agreed with Morganelli. “We need to find ways to make these things affordable, so that we can actually not have layoffs. The back side of this may not be good. New growth may not even be a concept,” he said.
“Our new growth is about $1 million a year, and the pension increases are eating up a huge portion of that. This year over $600,000 out of the million, something else to be concerned with,” Flaherty said, adding that a large portion of new growth is automatically consumed by things that can’t be changed.
“I agree with my fellow councilors, we need to do a lot of work, look under every rock to make sure we’re protected and able to stay financially solvent,” said Mello, before stating her support for residents who wrote in their concerns about the size of the police department budget.
At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr., who serves on the Finance committee, said on the pension note, there is a solution. He said the retirees and employees should be on separate systems, and the pension negotiated. Sullivan also volunteered to try to make the needed changes.
“WIth no other comments and no cuts, I would move as a council of the whole to approve the budget as amended with the one cut ($2,150) moving over to Animal Control. With that amendment, I would move the approval of the budget as amended,” Sullivan said.
I’m not going to be voting for the budget. I don’t think we’ve done what is best for the city, particularly the carryover, which increases taxes by 2.5 percent, and cutting departments that are critical,” said Flaherty, adding that he doesn’t think the council has addressed the concerns of the citizens.
“Until this week, we haven’t heard about cutting police. But we do hear about roads and taxes.” Flaherty said, adding, “I appreciate the trouble with this budget, but I think we’re doing a disservice to the taxpayers.”
“I don’t want councilors characterizing my priorities when they say our priorities. Roads are a priority to a certain extent, but schools are more important to me. Time and time again, councilors say the same rhetoric with very little follow through,” Bean said, adding, “I’m my own person. The way our schools are right now, we need to fund them appropriately. Our buildings are in terrible shape. I can deal with a pothole or two rather than failing schools.”
The Fiscal Year 2021 Budget was approved as amended, with Allie, Flaherty and Morganelli voting no.
The final vote on the budget will be Monday, June 29 at 6 p.m. when the City Council votes on the actual Orders of Appropriation, according to City Clerk Karen M. Fanion.
“What they did last night (June 25) was refer everything to the Auditor with the one cut from Community Development, for the Auditor to prepare the Orders of Appropriation,” Fanion said.