Around Town

Mayor Humason looks forward to a new year

Mayor Donald F. Humason, Jr. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS FILE PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – “When I came into office last January, I thought it would be a normal year,” Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr. said this week as he looked back at 2020 and forward to a new year.

Then COVID happened, and the city and the schools shut down. Several positions also opened up in City Hall due to retirements.

“We’re almost back to full strength,” Humason said. In the past year, a new Westfield Barnes Airport manager was hired, and Humason said he was happy that former Airport Manager Chrisopher WIllenborg returned. “It was great to have him back on board, he didn’t need a lot of training,” he said, adding that he has also worked for the state Department of Transportation’s Aviation division.

The city has also hired a new auditor, Vicki Leigh Moro; a new emergency management director, Stephen Malochleb, and most recently a new personnel director, Robert Bishop, who started a few weeks ago. “He’s got a lot of plans,” Humason said about Bishop, including working on unified COVID tracking for the city.

Humason said the only major position outstanding at this point is the Department of Public Works director. He called it a super department; many departments overseen by one person. Humason said there have been a couple of candidates but not enough. He said the two boards in charge of hiring, the Water Commission and Public Works, are extending the search. Meanwhile, he said Acting Director Francis Cain is doing a good job, and got through the first snowstorm well.

Another open position he would like to fill in the mayor’s office this year is a City Advancement Officer, last held by Joseph Mitchell. “This year is the year that I’d like to see that position return,” he said, adding that he would like to find someone from Westfield or the region, who is familiar with the city.

Right after the new year, Humason will start working on the new budget in January and February. The state didn’t sign this year’s budget until December, and he wonders if next year they will do it in July as usual.

“The state spent $1.7 billion of its rainy day fund on this year’s fiscal budget – more than half of what they have in reserve. They can’t do that again,” Humason said. He said going into next year, the city’s projections will probably be tentative once again and based on moving numbers until the city receives the actual state aid, which is its third biggest source of revenue.

Humason said while it may be a repeat of this year, he will have the benefit of having already gone through the city budget once. “I’ll know better what I’m doing,” he said.

The Mayor said he is also hoping for a healthy Free Cash number to rely on to augment the budget, and pay for one-time capital needs projects. Free Cash has not yet been certified by the Department of Revenue, which normally would have been done by now, but is delayed.

Something Humason talked about on the campaign trail that hasn’t been done due to COVID is to look at a new master plan for Westfield. He said they may be able to take money from Free Cash and hire an outside consultant to work with government, education, the private sector and community development. His interest is in involving residents as much as possible to learn what they would like to see for the city, and how they would like to see it grow.

“It’s been 50 years since the city has had a master plan. It’s not a bad idea to have a roadmap for the future,” Humason said.

Also in the works is a new elementary school at Franklin Avenue. Humason said he would also like to establish a committee to look at a new police station.

“In the end, this year turned out to be a better year for city government than we anticipated at the beginning. We thought it was going to be far worse because of COVID,” Humason said. He said he put forward a conservative budget in the spring, based on an anticipated cut to local aid and not knowing the state would dip into its rainy day fund.

“We came out with a pretty good budget figure,” he said, one enhanced by grants received from COVID and non-COVID related funds. He said the fact that they were able to keep tax rates fairly constant makes Westfield more competitive. He is also hoping to get another improvement in the city’s bond rating this year.

Humason said that for the small businesses and restaurants that are struggling, Community Development Director Peter J. Miller and his team are trying to reach out to Westfield businesses, “to do whatever we can as a city to support them.”

As a mayor, Humason missed being able to go to events and celebrations in the city this year, although he was able to attend a few ribbon cuttings, he said.

One of those was for Cannabis Connection, the first of four marijuana retail license holders to open in the city, along with cultivators and even some labs.  Humason said although he was not supportive of legalizing recreational marijuana when he was in state government, the residents of Westfield voted for it, and they are and will be part of the businesses that make up the community here. He said it’s good for the city, along with the manufacturing and retail that make up Westfield’s business and industry.

“I want to make Westfield as successful a city as possible to live in and work in. There’s so much to love about it,” Humason said. He said as Senator for 11 different cities and towns, he had the chance to get to know many different communities. “I see that we here in the city have a lot going for us. I’m grateful that we’re in that position.”

Humason talked about working very closely with Public Health Director Joseph Rouse and his board. “I think Joe and his team have had a really good finger on the pulse here in the city,” he said, adding that decisions were always made in conjunction with the Health Department, with an eye on keeping kids in school as much as possible and keeping them safe, the ultimate goal.

He said he also appreciates the close working relationship with the City Council, the Council President, Finance and Legislative & Ordinance committee chairs, and his excellent staff at City Hall.

“For a year that we anticipated was going to be a real disaster, we’re ending better than anticipated,” Humason said, adding that next year will be difficult, but at least vaccinations are anticipated.

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