WESTFIELD – At the start of the Ward 3 meeting at the Westfield Athenaeum on Thursday, Councilor Andrew K. Surprise announced that he will be running for an at-large seat in November, and asked for the support of the two dozen people in attendance. He also introduced Bridget Matthews-Kane, one of two candidates, along with Richard Sutter, who have taken out papers to run for Ward 3.
Surprise said that Matthews-Kane worked with him to get protections in place for residents, after the city approached him about the plans for a hospital zone for Baystate-Noble Hospital. Surprise also announced that he is endorsing Matthews-Kane for Ward 3.
At the meeting, several invited guests spoke on a range of topics, beginning with Community Police Officer Lt. Eric Hall. Hall listened to concerns about traffic on Western Avenue, especially the impact on side streets due to construction. He said the city website will be updated daily with traffic impacts from construction. Hall also suggested calling the dispatcher at the police department with questions, and called the department “a pretty good referral agency. We spend a lot of time making those connections with other departments.”
Regarding drug overdoses, which he said are still prevalent, Hall said the police department has been trying to do follow up calls with people who can help, and have been having some success with it. In response to a question, he said the police do not carry Narcan on them, but may do so in the future. He said Westfield is also participating in a nationwide overdose mapping program in an effort to track the movement of dangerous drugs.
“Clearly, what we’re doing right now isn’t as effective as it could be,” he said.
Auditor Christopher Caputo, who was appointed in January, introduced himself and spoke of his previous experience with budgets in Longmeadow and Springfield. Caputo went over the city’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget expenses on a pie chart demarcating education, health insurance, general government, public service, debt service, culture and recreation, human services, and public works. He also compared property taxes, local receipts and state aid percentages to the other communities he had served, which varied widely in property taxes and state aid.
In discussing Proposition 2 ½ and the levy ceiling, Surprise invited Councilor David Flaherty to explain the difference between the tax levy, tax levy limit and levy ceiling. He said the tax levy is the amount of tax the city collects; the tax levy limit equals 2.5% of the community’s full and fair cash value plus new growth, until they hit the levy ceiling, which limits the amount the city can raise.
“By my numbers, we’re two years from hitting the levy ceiling,” Flaherty said.
Both Surprise and Flaherty emphasized the need to control growth and spending. Surprise said cuts will have to be made, noting that a recent report by an outside engineering firm said the city needs to spend $5 million a year to maintain the roads in the city. Last year, road maintenance was budgeted at $1.2 million, he said. Flaherty added that the highway department used to be larger years ago, before it started getting squeezed out.
“We’re not picking on employees, but they are the biggest thing in the budget,” Surprise said.
Flaherty added that the school department takes up over 50% of the budget. He also noted that union contracts are currently being negotiated, and the City Council can reject union contracts. “We need to know the costs before we accept contracts,” Flaherty said.
“We are going to have to make cuts,” Surprise said, adding that raises can’t be 2% per year over three years, as they are negotiated in some years.
Surprise said he hopes that the city advancement officer position, recently held by Joe Mitchell, stays in the budget for next year.
“We need to bring more businesses in, they are the biggest taxpayers in town. My biggest thing is to develop downtown,” he said.
Surprise talked about the recent road stabilization fund which passed the City Council on a vote of 12-1, but without designated funding. He proposes designating all Chapter 90 funds, hotel and meals taxes, and 1% of general revenue to road maintenance.
Kristen Mello of Westfield Residents Advocating for Themselves (WRAFT) gave an update on the state and national advocacy work the group has been doing around the PFAS contamination found in the city’s water on the north side of town. She said in April, state Rep. John Velis submitted a request to create a caucus on the PFAS issue in the statehouse.
Mello also talked about the inclusion of Westfield as one of eight communities for ATSDR blood testing, for the purpose of comparison to national averages.
Mello said WRAFT, researchers at the University Massachusetts, and the community of Hyannis, which has similar contamination issues from fire-fighting foam, jointly submitted an application on Thursday to be selected for a national health study. She said WRAFT has also submitted a petition to connect Westfield to the Tighe-Carmody Reservoir as a backup water source for the north side.
At-large Councilor Matthew Emmershy also spoke about the possibility of a clean water source on Cabot Road, close to the site of the proposed Turnpike Industrial Park. He said a 1995 report surfaced that suggests that Cabot Road has the potential to be a high yield water supply for the city. He said a few months ago, DPW Director David Billips asked the City Council for $26,000 for a geosphere study to see if that area is a viable location for a well source.
The last speaker at the meeting was Rob Levesque of R. Levesque Associates, who said he is working with Baystate Noble Hospital on an updated proposal for a hospital zoning district, which takes into consideration recent feedback, and said they would be submitting a petition to the City Council.
Surprise thanked residents for coming to the meeting, which he videotaped and is posted online.