WESTFIELD – At–large City Councilors and members of the Finance Sub-Committee David Flaherty and Matthew T. Heynigen held another budget meeting on Wednesday evening to review several departments in City Hall.
“We are looking for budget cuts, as you heard. Doesn’t mean we’ll get seven votes to pass any,” said Flaherty to Director of Purchasing Tammy Tefft. Following her review, he asked her about the $410,000 electric costs in the budget for street lights.
Tefft said she’d feel comfortable with a $10,000-$15,000 cut in that line. She did say that traffic signals are moving to meters. Currently, the city pays between $12,000 and $13,000 for seven traffic signals on meters.
“With LED lights going in, you’d expect costs (of street lights) to go down,” said Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski. Tefft said she hasn’t seen a huge reduction. She said last year, the city paid $350,000 for street lights. This year, the cost was $365,000.
Flaherty asked Matthew Roman, who was present representing the community, if he knew how many LED lights were going in. Roman said over 1,000 are being replaced.
“Unless there’s a separate cost of installing them,” said VanHeynigen. “Maybe they’re (Westfield Gas & Electric) building the cost in.”
Flaherty suggested looking at pulling utility costs out of purchasing. “We have other departments with energy costs. Then we’d have one big number, and could get the big picture,” he said.
Another point of discussion in purchasing was the cost of insurance for the city. MAIA (the Mass. Association of Insurance Agents) will be undertaking a re-evaluation of city buildings, which Tefft said hasn’t been done in her twelve years on the job. Any increases in valuation won’t be effective until FY18, she said. Currently, the city pays between $230,000 and $240,000 per year in insurance costs.
Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell asked whether the city got quotes on insurance every year. Tefft said an evaluation of the insurance is done every year, but, to date, risk analysis has found that it wouldn’t pay to change insurance carriers from MAIA.
City Auditor Deborah A. Strycharz said her budget was pretty much “bare bones,” with the audit being the major expense. Flaherty said he heard that Strycharz will be leaving, and she acknowledged that she will be retiring in the fall. She said she has made suggestions about what should happen when she leaves, but no arrangements have yet been made.
Treasurer Meghan Kane said the salary line item is up in her budget, having just hired an assistant treasurer. Ewa Zalinski of Westfield was confirmed by the City Council at the May 5 meeting.
Kane said the city is looking to auction off some of its possessions for a revenue source in the coming year. She said they have only foreclosed on one property since she has been on the job. She said the properties are mostly small parcels, and their value is not huge.
Kane said that in January the city also auctioned off tax title liens, which she said takes tax collection off their backs. She said the liens are typically purchased by an investment company.
“It’s an immediate cash flow for the city,” Kane said.
After going over the budget of the collector’s office, Flaherty asked Kane what she thought of the idea of having the collectors collect more things. He said several people in the city send out bills and collect money.
Kane said there is a difference between sending out bills and having people come in for building permits or dump stickers, for example. She said the idea could be explored, but that staffing in the office was tight now.
“They’re dealing with customers all day long. I’m not sure the volume of people would work with our staffing,” Kane said, adding that the work was different than what her office currently does.
Flaherty said he just thought instead of having ten people collect small amounts of money, a centralized location might be better. Kane said she agreed that the fewer people who handle money the better, but that it would be adding too much.
City Solicitor Susan C. Phillips spoke about the five lawyers employed by the city, as well as contracts with outside counsel when needed due to possible conflicts of interest. She said Meghan R. Bristol, the new attorney whose appointment was also confirmed on May 5, has seven years of experience working on bankruptcies, and will be a great addition.
Phillips said the city saves by not hiring a law firm.
“As late as 2012, the City of Westfield was still paying a law firm to do collective bargaining at a cost of $60,000,” Phillips said.
She said that lawsuits are down, from a high of $140,000 in 2012, to just $850 last year, not including the school department.
“I always say, you never know,” said Phillips, adding, “I’d like to say we’re going to only pay $850, but you just don’t know.”
Phillips said her office also handles judgements for pothole and mailbox claims. She said payment for pothole damage is capped at $5000 and $45 for mailboxes, and usually costs the city between $11,000 and $15,000 per year. This year, they had between 60-70 claims, she said.
Phillips said the lawyers will also be dividing up the Boards & Commissions in the city to give them legal counsel, and make sure they are aware of new ordinances and rules.
Phillips noted that one uptick for her department is in bloggers making public records requests by email. She said she has had 91 significant requests. One blogger who requested information regarding tactical equipment and training is appealing the cost the city has charged.
The next budget hearing will be June 16 at 5:30 p.m. in Room 315, prior to the City Council meeting at 6:30 p.m. Up for review are the budgets of the engineer, facilities director, city advancement and mayor’s office.