Light board discusses providing financial assistance to city amidst pandemic

WESTFIELD- Westfield Gas and Electric and its Municipal Light Board will consider the city’s request for financial assistance during its Aug. 12 meeting.

Following cuts to the city and school budgets due to the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials have requested  $1 million  in financial assistance from WG&E. City Councilors and School Committee members said the money would go to either the city itself or the school system should WG&E choose to provide it. 

City Council President Brent B. Bean II said during Wednesday’s meeting that he did not want the item to be acted on right away, but that he hoped city and WG&E officials could sit down and discuss the issue in the coming weeks first.

“I understand that money is always at a premium, and it is tight across the board. It is very difficult to make these budget items work,” said Bean, “But I think we may have a common goal moving forward.”

Westfield Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. was also present, and made his case for why the municipal power company should provide assistance to the city. 

“This year was an unprecedented year. Obviously it is my first year doing the budget. It is not the budget that I wanted to present to the city,” said Humason, who was sworn in as mayor just a few months before COVID-19 hit the area, “We have a lot of money that we didn’t receive that we normally would have. This year is very difficult because we have had to take out from the city side of the budget as well as the school side.”

Humason pointed out that the city was able to find $1.5 million in free cash that they put towards the schools to avoid laying off many teachers and school employees. That did not cover the entire budget deficit, however. 

He said that he expects the city to be facing similar issues next year, as the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to last at least that long. 

“That’s quite frankly horrifying to me because we have used a lot of our one-time tricks now that we don’t want to have to repeat next time,” said Humason.

School Committee Vice Chair Tim O’Connor said that the main issue for the schools is that it is unknown how much financial assistance will be coming from the state this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused financial strain on the local, state, and federal governments, meaning assistance from one level to the next is not likely to be as high as in previous years. 

School Committee Secretary Cindy Sullivan said that they do not expect to know how much money will be coming from the state until August or September. 

Should the money be given by WG&E, it would come out of their stabilization fund, which is an account the company uses to stabilize power rates for the rate-payers in the event of a large price fluctuation. 

Commissioner Edward Roman said that he was in favor of WG&E giving the city assistance. He said that they typically add $2 million to the stabilization fund every year. It currently sits at $35 million and their goal is to have it at $48 million. 

Ward 2 Commissioner Ray Rivera said he would also be in favor of the move, though he would like to first look at the stabilization fund needs for next year.

 Ward 5 Commissioner Thomas Flaherty expressed caution. He said that he does not think they should blindly give out the money, and would like to wait and see what kind of assistance the state will be providing to the schools. 

“Our responsibility as elected commissioners is to look out for the ratepayers,” said Flaherty, “I agree that we do have money to help, however I don’t want to blindly say, ‘hey, here’s a million dollars.’”

Ward 3 Commissioner Dawn Renaudette said she was torn about to handle the issue. She agreed with Flaherty that they are beholden to the ratepayers, but acknowledged that the money is there to help the city. She said more time to talk it over would be necessary.

Commissioner Chair Robert Sacco largely agreed with Flaherty and Renaudette, and added that WG&E has also been financially impacted by COVID-19.

“Not unlike the city, we are unsure of our financial situation right now. Account receivables going through the roof at the very beginning of this pandemic. We are just starting to see the financial impact on all of us,” said Sacco, “Your budget does not seem to be settled by virtue of the state.”

He said that he would like for there to be further discussion and to gather more information before the MLB makes a decision. 

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