WESTFIELD – Mayor Donald F. Humason, Jr. likes to call the annual city budget “the big picture story of your government with numbers attached to it.” In speaking about the budget, he also starts with the big picture; the state process, anticipated federal aid, and the state of the city.
“Last year was my first year doing the municipal budget. There was a lot of anxiety around COVID,” Humason said. Mixed stories were coming from Boston, and grants and federal aid hadn’t yet kicked in.
“Last year I chose to take a really conservative approach,” he added. He said he and then City Auditor Christopher Caputo planned a budget that was 15 percent lower than the previous year. The state ended up level funding, but not until December.
“I’ve said to people I’d be content with any amount as long as it’s on time,” Humason is saying this year.
Currently, the city is $1 million ahead in receipts from this time last year. Recently, Standards & Poors did an assessment of Westfield’s fiscal condition, and said Westfield is very strong, giving the city an AA rating. He said they noted a stable long term outlook and stable economic base coupled with conservative budgeting.
“The only area they dinged was the large pension and OPEB obligations,” he said, calling it a statewide issue. “If everybody from the state who could retire did retire, we’d be in trouble.”
Humason said the Commonwealth’s position is also stronger. Both the Speaker of the House and Governor have pledged to increase the budget. He said the Governor did put in an increase in the House I budget, which the representatives will begin to debate on April 26. Amendments were filed this week.
“When the debate begins on Monday, the first day is about revenue enhancement and tax increases. The Speaker said no large tax increases, and will draw from the Rainy Day fund. The rest of the departments start Tuesday to Thursday,” Humason said.
He is watching Chapter 70 aid, based on student population numbers. He said Westfield is down 200 students this year, which might impact how much Ch 70 is received. He will be asking Rep. Kelly Pease to support an amendment to base Chapter 70 on 2019 numbers.
He will also ask Pease to support an increase in Chapter 90 funds, which is separate from the budget.
“We think the state budget will be better both for unrestricted funds to the city side, and Chapter 70 to the school side,” Humason said, adding that the House speaker also pledged to fund the Student Opportunity Act, which will boost investment in the schools.
Humason’s goal is not to raise taxes. “Last year, not only did we not raise taxes, the tax rate went down. That is the good news. More good news is Westfield is a great city. In December, tax values went up 5 percent. At the end of this year, I’d love to not have new taxes. My goal is to keep Westfield’s tax split and tax rate the same,” he said.
Over the last few months, Humason and Auditor Vicki Moro, who he said is doing “a great job,” have been reviewing budgets with all of the city departments. He said he asked the departments to level fund this year, understanding there will be increases with COLA and contractual increases.
He said there are also expected increases in certain departments such as Information Technology, which played such a huge role during the pandemic. “Every kid has a chromebook. We knew we were going to increase IT,” he said.
Asked to comment on the recent request to increase the school budget by $2.3 million, Humason said he couldn’t comment as he serves on the School Committee, which will be reviewing the budget line by line. “We have to find out where that money is going to come from,” he said, adding that the city needs its own appropriation.
Westfield has been told the city will receive an appropriation of $17 million from the American Rescue Plan to spend over the next four years. Humason said there are four different eligible categories to spend the funds on. “It’s not a blank check,” he said, adding that the city is waiting for guidance from the Treasury Dept. in May.
One of the eligible categories is to make up for COVID losses. Humason said the city did not suffer a lot of losses.
Another is infrastructure, an area that Westfeld would like to invest in. “We may spend it on levees and dams – that might be an area where we could use some of the money,” he said.
“Westfield’s budget will be bigger than last year. The question is how much bigger. I don’t want to create a budget that’s not sustainable when the well dries up. I tend to be more conservative; one-time money, we’ll use on capital needs. I don’t want to hire a lot of people,” Humason said.
One area that he would like to spend on from Free Cash is to create a Request for Proposal for a Master Plan, which hasn’t been done in fifty years. He said the city will hire a consultant once the City Council agrees to pay for it to begin the fairly lengthy process.
Humason said Westfield has “good pieces;” the Rail Trail, recreation opportunities in its river and woods, a hospital, university and airport.
“We know we have good pieces. The Master Plan looks at how to join those parts,” he said, adding, “I want to tie all those in, so all those parts make up a whole. A unified cohesive vision that will carry us into the future.”
In the nearer term, Humason would like to use funding received for downtown revitalization to hire a consultant, and work with downtown businesses on how to capitalize on visitors coming in for the opening of the new section of the Rail Trail.
“I want to help the business community to capitalize on new customers and make Westfield known as a friendly, welcoming place,” Humason said.
“We’re not `pothole city’ anymore,” he said, adding that he knows that for a fact because the number of claims of damage from potholes is down significantly.
“Westfield is open for business,” Humason said.