Treasurer gives overview of city’s financial health
WESTFIELD – The Finance subcommittee of the whole continued its department reviews on June 16, with 15 minutes allotted for the Council on Aging, Veterans Affairs, Law, Auditor, and Treasurer/Collector. All of the department budgets passed by a majority vote with no recommended cuts.
The sole dissenting vote on all of the department budgets was At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty, who explained to COA Director Tina Gorman that he intended to vote no on a lot of the budgets, because he didn’t like the process. At the June 15 review, Flaherty said he objected that that no cut votes would be accepted before the final vote on the budget on June 29, and that he felt the process was rushed.
Gorman talked about the current operations at the Senior Center. She said a state grant covers some of the staff, including the kitchen assistant who has been invaluable through the meal program; the companion program coordinator, a part-time clerk and two greeters, one of whom is on furlough. She said one of the greeters has made over 700 telephone assurance calls during this time.
Flaherty asked Gorman, since the budget is based on a 10 percent state cut, had she thought about what she would do if the cut were larger.
“Yes, I thought of all the horrible scenarios,” Gorman said. She said she would go back to reducing staffing and hours, and look at the expenses of the building. During the colder months she turned heat down on the unused space, and will look to do the same with air conditioning during the summer, although she said she wasn’t sure of the cost savings in doing that. She said she could also cut down on maintenance materials.
“Until I know what reopening will look like, I don’t know. We’ve tried to be really flexible,” Gorman said, adding that the Friends group has helped to pay for some programming on Channel 15, and has also been flexible in its approach.
Veterans Services Director Julie Barnes said her budget has been cut back a little. She said 35 of the veterans that the program serves have become eligible for MassHealth, which will lower the insurance payout.
Councilor James R. Adams said he had never heard of so many veterans accessing benefits, and said the city pays only 25%, with the state paying 75%.
In response to a question, Barnes said that Veterans Services has 93 veterans they are helping through Chapter 115, as well as helping others with pension and health claims, and families who come in for funeral benefits and flags for graves, among other services. She said the Salvation Army also provides food boxes, which 45 veterans are accessing, with the help of the Kiwanis Club, whose members will deliver.
Assistant City Solicitor Shanna Reed spoke for the Law Department. She said they have four full time and one part-time attorney, plus one clerical staff who also serves as the public records request contact for the city. Reed said there were 406 public records requests this past year. She said a new labor counsel was hired in March.
Other expenses for the department include substantial litigation costs, which went over budget this year and required $50,000 from free cash in March. She said out of state travel involves one case with federal jurisdiction.
Auditor Christopher Caputo said that department’s budget included $425,000 for salaries for six employees, $68,000 for the audit, which Caputo said is low for a city the size of Westfield; and small instate travel and dues.
Flaherty asked Caputo when the next audit would be conducted. He said the FY20 audit should be completed in February of 2201, and will be posted on the city website.
At-large Councilor Dan Allie thanked Caputo, who is leaving the position the first week in July, for his work and wished him well.
Treasurer/Collector Matthew Barnes explained the expenses for both departments to the councilors.
Following the presentation, Council President Brent B. Bean II asked Barnes for a quick overview on the health of the city at this point, from his perspective.
Barnes said the city has just gone through a bond rating, and maintained its good rating of AA. He said the two biggest pressures are the city’s other post employees benefits (OPEB) liability, and maintaining its stabilization at five percent of the budget, which he said they have maintained for several years. “The bond advisor feels we’re right where we want to be as far as the rating,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the advisor was also happy with how the city planned for the budget this year in terms of anticipating reduced state aid, and asked specifically if they planned on using their reserves, which they did not.
At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr. said the last couple of reports on bond ratings have acknowledged a strong management team, even with the OPEB comments, which every community faces.
“Realistically, the AAA rating (is something) Westfield will never get to. The bond rating we have right now is about as high as we’re going to get,” Sullivan said, adding that Westfield is not large enough, and does not have the wealth to attain it. He said the good management practices should be commended.
“That’s what I’ve been told,” Barnes said.