Prop 2 1/2 override considered

WESTFIELD – The City Council voted last night to consider a Proposition 2 1/2 override referendum next November, to raise additional money for the Westfield School District.
At-large Councilor David A. Flaherty, who has been a vocal critic of the School Department spending, made the motion to send consideration of the override to the council’s Legislative & Ordinance Committee, for further review and a recommendation to the full council.
Flaherty said that the recent increases in the school budget, which accounts for more than half of the total municipal budget, are not sustainable. The department budget now before the City Council contains a 5.7 percent increase this year, reflecting a loss of $2.2 in federal funding.
“This is a tough one,” Flaherty said when introducing the override motion. “I don’t want to raise taxes, but I do want to give the people who pay those taxes an option to vote.”
“The school department is pulling rabbits out of the hat this year,” Flaherty said. “The department is draining all of its reserves, draining all of that money to balance their budget this year. But what about next year? These increases are not sustainable.  There is no way to recover next year. This is not a good situation.”
Flaherty said that the $3 million increase in the school budget is coming at the expense of other city departments and programs.
“What do we do next year when they want that, just eliminate the Police Department, and the next year the Fire Department so we can maintain those increases?” Flaherty asked. “We have other capital needs, other than the school’s operating funding. We’re straining all of the other departments. We have a real financial problem.”
“I do want to help the schools and this is one way of doing it,” he said. “We can give this a shot.  I don’t think it will pass, but we can put it on the ballot.”
The council voted 10-2 to send the issue to the L&O for further discussion and review. Ward 5 Councilor Richard E. Onofrey Jr., and At-large Councilor Brent B. Bean II both voted in opposition.
(At-large Councilor Brian Sullivan has left the chambers earlier after welcoming council Kevin W. Harraghy, who is filling the remainder of the late At-large Councilor Patti Andras term. Sullivan did note that Harraghy, who served a term on the council 30 years ago, is now the senior member, an honor Sullivan has held recently.)
State law requires all Proposition 2 1/2 override ballot question be certified by the Secretary of State no later than the first Wednesday in August, a requirement which may result in a special council session during its annual summer recess.
Council president Christopher Keefe said this morning that the L&O will have to “turn this around quickly” to meet the required state deadline and will have to develop ballot question language “which has to be very specific. It’s a very technical question and process.”
Keefe also spoke during the council’s discussion of Flaherty’s override motion last night.
“I was inclined to never vote in favor of something put on the table by the councilor to my left (Flaherty) again,” Keefe said. “However, the last couple of motions he has made are in the best interest of the city, the council and this chamber as an institution, so I may change my mind and vote for this motion.”
Keefe was referring to several of Flaherty’s motions which he feels are political statements and not something proposed to benefit the city, the goal of the council.
“I do know that at some point people want a voice,” Keefe said. “The schools are in a pinch. People on both side of that issue have asked when they would have a chance to vote.”
“We have never had consideration of an override question before, so referring this to the L&O will kick off a good discussion,” Keefe said. “I don’t know who we will hear from, the people who think we’re starving the schools, people willing to pay a higher tax rate, or the people who feel taxes as too high now.”
Keefe said the override, if approved, would increase the taxes by $120 per household.
“Is there the political will for that out in the public?” Keefe asked. “I think this motion will go out to the community and kick off a public discussion.”

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