Finance budget cuts fail to gain support at Special City Council meeting

WESTFIELD – During a four hour Special City Council meeting Wednesday in which not a single one of the $2 million in budget cuts recommended by the Finance sub-committee were passed, a second conversation began about the process. All councilors were present except for Ward 5 Councilor Robert A. Paul, Sr.
Comments came from both city councilors and department heads who had been slated for cuts and whom City Council president John J. Beltrandi, III invited to speak before votes were cast. The consensus seemed to be that cuts that eliminated positions or encouraged changes in the way departments are run should not come two days before the new fiscal year begins.

The Mayor and many department heads slated for cuts were present at Wednesday’s budget review.

Before the review began, several councilors made statements. Ward 3 Councilor Andrew K. Surprise, a member of the Finance committee suggested the city needs to look at zero-based budgeting in the future. “There are no sacred cows in this budget; the only sacred cow is the residents’ wallet,” he said.
At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty said councilors should be able to state if they have a goal in mind, and discuss why they are doing this. He acknowledged that the Mayor and the department heads had already gone through five rounds of cuts, and said, “We don’t have enough money to do everything that we want to do.” Flaherty said his target at the meeting was $1.3 million in reductions, to replace the $1.3 million from savings that the Mayor included in the budget.
At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean, II said he wanted to hear what the goal of the Finance committee was in recommending the cuts. He said he had watched their meeting on Tuesday night, and did not understand their goal or process.
Surprise responded that their goal was $1.2 to $1.5 million in cuts, adding that not all of the members of the committee, including himself, Chairman Dan Allie and Matt Emmershy, agreed with all the cuts.
“We know that some of these cuts probably are not going to fly,” Allie added.
“When I set out with this, I went through and tried to inflict the least amount of pain. My goal is $1.5 million,” Emmershy said, adding that he also did not agree with all of the cuts being recommended.
“I think the Mayor’s budget is a well thought out, and vetted budget,” said At-large Councilor Cindy C. Harris, adding that she had attended every single budget meeting.
Ward 2 Councilor Ralph J. Figy said he believed the Mayor and Superintendent were on top of their budgets. “I was very impressed when they came back mid-year with the adjustment,” Figy said, referring to the $1.5 reduction proposed by the Mayor in the fall that the Council approved in November. “I don’t think we have to make $1.3 million in cuts. We don’t just have tonight, we have November,” he said. At last night’s Finance budget review, Mayor Brian P. Sullivan said he would “absolutely” be coming back to the council mid-year with adjustments from managing the budget.
Allie talked about the increase in Medicare costs as a result of the two and a half percent salary increases negotiated this year. “None of us have an easy job. We can’t even grow out of this problem, because of what education costs. Government has gotten so expensive, and we have things like water issues to deal with. We’re all in this together,” Allie said.
Allie then brought forward the recommendations from Finance, one by one, and none achieved the simple majority of seven needed to pass.
Some of the cuts were not supported in part because of the timing of them, such as cuts proposed by Surprise for the Technology Center in an effort to encourage a merger with Westfield Gas & Electric.
Bean said that conversation should be phased in “at best” over a few years, and to cut a budget to force an issue is not the way to go, with which Allie agreed.
Flaherty, who did not support the Tech Center cuts, said the reason the budget proposals are at a late date, is because the City Council got the budget late last month. “We should get a multi-year budget every year,” he said.
A similar discussion was held around cuts of more than $400,000 to Barnes Airport, originally proposed by Emmershy in an effort to get the airport to become self-sufficient, by increasing charges for landing fees, for example.
Figy said that last year the Finance committee made a plan, and gave the Airport and its new manager two years to bring in more revenue. Flaherty said the airport agreed they could be break even in two years, and said the Council needs to let them go another year. He also said that the airport is a significant revenue generator for the city from its tenants.
Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski, liaison to the airport said the tenants there collectively represent 2,000 jobs, $74 million in payroll, and $230 million in economic output. He said the idea of closing the airport, which Emmershy suggested if they couldn’t get in the black, was disrespectful to the Air National Guard members who risk their lives through their jobs. Onyski also said by closing the airport, the city would be liable to repay $46 million in grants to the federal government, and 1.4 million to the state government.
Westfield Police Captain Michael McCabe also had a message for the councilors when he came forward to defend cuts to the Police Department. McCabe said his budget is prepared every year in February on behalf of Chief John A. Camerota, and is based on historical figures over time, mentioning his 33 years on the force. “To suggest this cut is just disrespectful. There are people here who are human beings,” he said.
McCabe called the process “appalling” and “flawed,” adding,” “I’m sorry if I’m angry, but something has to be said about the way this process specifically worked.”
“No disrespect here. We’re a new Finance committee,” Surprise said. “The process is broken,” he admitted.
“McCabe knows the budget inside and out. This is one of the departments that could easily prepare a five year budget and come in within 1%,” said Flaherty, agreeing with Surprise that the process is broken. “We’ve got to plan better for next year,” Flaherty said.
By the time they got to the School Department, the last item on the list, for which a $600,000 cut had been recommended, the meeting had run out of steam. Flaherty tried to move to adjourn the meeting, saying they weren’t getting anywhere. Beltrandi, in fairness to School Department officials who had already waited nearly four hours, proceeded with the meeting.
Flaherty then said he was not going to vote for any cuts to the school budget. “It’d be crazy for us to cut the schools if we didn’t cut anything else,” he said, but looking at school officials, added, “You can’t keep going like this.”
School Committee member Cindy Sullivan then addressed the council regarding some of comments that have been made. “We do not move money around to make up for raises,” Sullivan said as a start. She commented that it took them 60 seconds to recommend the $600,000 cut. She also said the councilors like to compare statistics in Westfield to other communities except in salaries, which she said are lower.
Sullivan said she gets very upset when she hears the teachers’ contracts referred to as “the elephant in the room.”
“Our teachers gave up severance – no other unions did that. That’s a lot of money,” she said, to which one administrator shouted out $19 million in severance and health insurance cuts. Sullivan said they made deep cuts, and there are people who won’t be working in the district in the new budget.
After Flaherty’s motion to reduce the cuts to the school district to zero passed, Surprise spoke up. “You put us on the committee to fail. You didn’t support any cuts whatsoever,” he said, calling it a “travesty.” The meeting was then adjourned.
“The School Department is pleased we don’t have to make many cuts, because we already made many cuts to get to this number. In reality, our increase to the city was $486,000. I’m grateful to the Council for not cutting us anymore,” said WPS Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski following the meeting.
“You’re either going to cut services or people, that’s what it comes down to,” Beltrandi said. He said the budget review went through the process, and went through all the hearings. He also said he did not know the Finance committee intended to recommend $2 million in cuts until their meeting on Tuesday. “I would have thought if the Finance Committee were going to do that, it would have come up in individual budget hearings,” Beltrandi added.
The City Council will now vote on the budget as a whole at a Special City Council meeting tonight (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m., following a vote on the second reading and final passage of the $13 million water filtration bond.

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