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Public asks for school support, police department cuts during hearing

WESTFIELD – The City Council hosted a public hearing on the budget June 22. At the start of the meeting, President Brent B. Bean, II asked City Clerk Karen M. Fanion to read the names of the six individuals who wrote in letters to the hearing.

At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty asked that the topics of the letters also be read, along with the names.

CC Costello, Jessica Stanwood and Chet Zymroz wrote in to ask the City Council to support the School Department’s budget with no further cuts.

Trevor Eckhart, Alex Natario and Bridget Venezia asked the Council to consider cutting the Police Department budget and increasing the Conservation Committee, Community Development, and the Council on Aging instead. Eckhart also pointed to not seeing women listed in the department.

Hannah Cheney, an incoming senior at Westfield High School, called in to talk about the Show Choir at Westfield High School, the wonderful family it has become for the students and all of the opportunities to perform in the community. She urged the Council not to cut the music program.

Stacie Breck also called in support of music education. She said her daughter, who is a sophomore in high school, has been a part of the music department since fourth grade. Being a part of the music program has been an important part of her daughter’s high school education and survival, she stressed. She asked the City Council not to make any more cuts to the School Department, especially since the children have been so disrupted by the COVID closure.

Kathleen Hillman thanked the city councilors for allowing the public to view the budget process on Zoom. She said she would like to have a copy of the list of streets that City Engineer Mark Cressotti referred to being on the city’s radar for upcoming work. She also said she noticed that when Wells 7 and 8 went online on June 22, it seemed to affect her water pressure.

Bean asked Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski to connect with Hillman on both issues.

At-large Councilor Richard K. Sullivan Jr. also asked that Hillman’s question be included among those to go to Department of Public Works Superintendent Dave Billips when he comes before the Council in July to speak about Wells 7 and 8.

Seeing no more questions from the public, Bean took Sullivan’s suggestion to leave the public hearing open until the Thursday, June 25, final budget review.

Taking comments from councilors, Flaherty said he had a problem with the public hearing taking place after most of the departments have been voted on by councilors during the budget reviews.

Sullivan said he thought the process this year was significantly more accessible to the public, as all of the meetings were attended by the councilors and broadcast. He said at the meeting on Thursday, councilors could bring forward further cuts.

Flaherty said he didn’t think the council had set a goal for the series of meetings, and had no long-term strategy.

At-large Councilor James R. Adams said Westfield is trying to survive this year. He said compared to other towns, the city is in better shape. “I think it was to survive; anybody could have put forward cuts. The mayor has the vision. All we could have done is propose cuts. Compared to other cities, I think we’re doing great. All thirteen of us could make any cuts we want,” Adams said.

“The objective and goal of these finance meetings, was to review the mayor’s budget and to have a balanced budget in place by June 30. Everything you’re talking about, Councilor Flaherty, is a long-range finance committee (matter), not the finance committee. We should work together. My goal was to have a transparent operation that everyone could watch, and see, and debate, and move forward,” said Finance chair Ward 2 Councilor Ralph J. Figy.

“Last year was a spectacle, the nine hour meeting was ridiculous. The citizens of Westfield deserve our attention, they deserve better,” said Ward 4 Councilor Mike Burns.

“If you’re trying to save money for a new car within a year, you may have to put money aside. Short term budgets do affect long-term finances. Last year was not a spectacle, it was due diligence. I do commend the Finance Committee for the Zoom meetings. But I do agree with Councilor Flaherty, we’re having a public hearing after the finance meetings,” said Ward 1 Councilor Nicholas J. Morganelli Jr., adding that he has spoken to the mayor about holding a finance summit later in the year to take suggestions on next year’s budget.

“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that every year we talk about these things, but you’re talking about people and services. These budgets are very trim. If you think people are upset now, start cutting people and services. Let’s not lose sight of the big picture,” said Ward 5 Councilor John J. Beltrandi, III.

“To the student speaker, I do not see a cut to a high school music teacher. I’m hoping that Director Billips will choose to spend the $200,000 for the Tekoa Dam on another water construction project that needs to be done. I think the structure of these meetings for a new council was much easier than staring down a 9 hour meeting. However, I had a big problem with the public comments being made after the budget hearings. I do support keeping the public hearing open,” said At-large Councilor Kristen Mello.

“I think we all knew, even the residents knew, that this year the budget was not going to be easy at all. COVID-19, that could not be predicted.  I think the department heads did a good job in finding money that was not being used. This year we dealt with a lot of loss revenues. The backside of this is not going to be pretty. There weren’t going to be a lot of cuts that the mayor and the departments haven’t already come up with. I don’t think we were going into this budget season planning on cutting much,” said At-large Councilor Dan Allie.

“There are no cuts to music or arts in the schools on any level. That has been a priority of mine as we approached the mayor, and asked for $1.5 in Free Cash for the schools. I want to thank the administration for being willing to do that. I thank my colleagues for unanimously supporting that,” Sullivan said.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, too. Just because we’re not seeing cuts, does not mean we’re not doing work. I would say, when we start talking about goals in the city. The only thing this council can do at this point of time, in the last couple of weeks, is to cut the budget. The state sets the budget. They put the process off to September 1, and they didn’t give us the (extension). Every city and town is in the same situation. It’s their problem. The state is broken when it comes to funding municipalities. But to say that we’re not giving the public their due diligence is not fair,” said Bean.

“My original plan was to have the public hearing before any budget reviews, but the timing didn’t work out. We’re not required to have a public hearing unless ten citizens request it. Nobody requested it. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t have been done this way,” Figy said, adding that he scheduled another finance review on June 25, so the council could take into consideration any public comment.

The public hearing was kept open until June 25, before the meeting was adjourned.

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