Police department funding, defunding, discussed at public hearing

WESTFIELD – The Police Department budget was again a topic at the continued public hearing of the June 25 Finance committee meeting of the whole. Several letters, both for and against cuts to the department, plus comments by callers, Chief Lawrence Valliere, Capt. Michael McCabe and several councilors led to a clearer picture of the issues being raised.

About 10 new letters were received before Thursday’s hearing, and about half of them concerned the police department. The names of all the letter writers and the subjects of their communication were read into the record. Four of the letters requested cutting the police department budget, another four were in support of the Westfield PD.

After Fanion read the names, At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty asked if Valliere or McCabe wished to respond. Valliere said he joined the call because he understood that citizens may have wanted to ask questions about the police department budget.

Council President Brent B. Bean, II asked if there were any residents on the line that wished to participate.

Lisa Miranda called in to comment on the $8.4 million budget request for the police department. She said as a human services worker, who has worked with people with cognitive and mental health issues as well as homeless youth, she was worried.

“I am worried that having such a large budget could have adverse (effects) on other budgets, such as the commission on disabilities. I feel it would be best to take those resources and put them towards other facets of Westfield as an investment,” MIranda said.

She added that the school district was also on her mind, due to the talk of cutting teachers, the music department and athletics. “That goes hand in hand with crime rates, like they say, idle hands are tools of the devil. Funding in those resources fits into the big picture. Ultimately, we have to worry about stuff like the drug epidemic and how that’s spread, and how that can be linked to not having the activities,” Miranda added.

Chief Valliere said he couldn’t dispute anything that Miranda was saying. He said the social services agencies are a huge resource to the department. He also said that he loves music, and believes that music and athletics are important for youth. “Anything we can do for youth,” he said.

Valliere said without going line by line into the police department, he said the increase is about one percent of what it was the previous year. He said the cost of running the department, paying for the building and for officers is expensive. “Everything we’ve done in this building, we’ve done ourselves. Every office in this building, I’ve painted myself, he said, adding that employees have put in pavers, and setting up a classroom, including painting and installing a drop ceiling.

“We’re all for the social services and the help they give us. We have three SRO’s (school resource officers) in the schools themselves that come out of our budget. The school crossing guards are in our budget. I’m not for defunding this police department, because I know what we provide for a service and I know what it costs,” Valliere said.

Alex LaValley of Westfield was the next caller. He said he had recently gone through the police budget, and had emailed his concerns to the council. “I understand that it’s one percent, like the chief mentioned,” he said, adding that doesn’t sound like a lot, but $400,000 certainly does.

LaValley said when the school was cut, it was cut by $3 million and 33 positions. “Even if not increasing the chief’s budget by anything, and running with what we had last year, even if using that $400,000 that could be put towards social services,” he said, citing studies that show that more social services and community resources are helpful to children. “Westfield is an extremely safe city. I really don’t see the reason to boost the police budget. I think social services is key, music in school is key, athletics is key, better education all around, not breaking our teacher’s backs who are already overloaded,” LaValley said.

Miranda said in regards to sitting down and understanding the fiscal year 21 budget, an offer made by Valliere, she would be interested in doing that in regards to how the city could give back to social services, adding that many jobs are being cut, and important services are being cut.

At-large Councilor Dan Allie responded by saying that cuts to the music department in the school budget had been restored. “We’re in the situation that we’re in right now because the state greatly reduced the budget to the schools. The city provided $1.5 M in Free Cash. I believe we were told the music portion was restored,” Allie said..

“Sports were never cut, and music was restored,” agreed Finance committee chair Ralph J. Figy, who is also the liaison to the School Department.

“I just wanted to mention, Capt. McCabe and I have been in contact with how the public really wants to be more engaged. We have been reaching out to sit down and talk about where our priorities should go for next year,” Mello said.

“Addressing all the folks, everybody pretty well knows the tie I have to Westfield HIgh School as a volunteer coach for two leagues,” McCabe said before correcting some of the figures mentioned by the callers. McCabe said the actual budget for the police department this year is $8.034 million, which is a $74,000 increase, not $400,000, or a .009 increase.

“We certainly offer a myriad of social services. We get it. We totally understand what’s going on. We’re there to help you, we’re not there to hurt you,” McCabe said.

During the budget discussion that followed, the subject of the police department came up again when At-large Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli, Jr., who joined the meeting after it started, spoke about the conversation that had taken place.

“I came in on the defunding police conversations. I just don’t know where this is coming from nationwide and here in Westfield. Certainly our public service personnel need to be funded and funded well. I can’t even imagine not having those two departments, police and fire and ambulance,” said Morganelli.

He then went on to say that the top eight salaried positions in both departments is roughly $2 million for the 16 positions, adding that the city can’t sustain people retiring from those positions, and should perhaps consider a salary cap. Later he said that goes across the board for a lot of the management and department heads in the city.

“I definitely appreciate the police, fire, ambulance and every good work they do in our city and defunding it is absolutely absurd to just think about that. I was curious about the one or two people that sent emails, where is this coming from, I have no idea. I just don’t know where this is coming from, but it’s very disturbing to me,” Morganelli said.

Allie said he noticed a coordination among the letters, which half a dozen almost verbatim. He said some of the information was not accurate, and some of the cuts mentioned had been restored “well over a week ago. I appreciate the comments, but they’re not up to speed, and weren’t independent comments of people really paying attention to the budget. We need to find ways to make these things affordable, so that we can actually not have layoffs. The back side of this may not be good. New growth may not even be a concept,” Allie said.

Mello agreed with the councilors that a lot of work needs to be done, and they need to “look under every rock” to make sure the city is protected and able to stay financially solvent.

“If we’re not aware of why we’re getting the emails we’re getting, it’s because we’re not paying attention. There are things going on around the world that maybe don’t so much happen in Westfield a lot of the time. There are families of color in Westfield. There are people in Westfield who feel that we need to be very careful about what we’re funding and what we’re not,” Mello said, adding, “I do not know of any particular complaints against the police department but I have been in communication with them in order to find out.”

“These people are asking to defund and reallocate money into supports that are different, because they are concerned. And rather than say I don’t understand what you’re saying or that’s out of step, I think we need to educate ourselves about why these things are being said. Let’s engage with the public, and educate them about how the budget process works and where the money is going.. Let us engage each other and educate each other, instead of saying I don’t understand,” Mello said

“Well said Councilor Mello, I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr.

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