Ward 3 update from Councilor Surprise

Happy New Year Ward 3 and Westfield! 2017 is going to be a busy year for the city. As a Council we ended last year, and started this year on a good note for the citizens of Westfield. I spoke in my last article about the need for Property Tax Relief, and encouraged Westfielders to contact their Councilors and the Mayor to support the effort. The Good News is that the Mayor and Council heard your voices, and for the first time in a decade we have held the line on Residential Property Taxes. There will be NO Residential tax hike in 2017! I thank Mayor Sullivan and my colleagues on the Council for listening to their constituents.

This was accomplished by utilizing Free Cash to offset the budget increases. Free Cash, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is simply unspent taxpayer dollars which were budgeted for, but not used. Last year that free cash number overall was about $3.5 Million, with the City saving about $1.8 Million in addition to existing Free Cash already on hand. The unfortunate thing is, unless Westfield gets it spending under control, this is one-time tax relief. We as a Council had the ability to make much bigger cuts to the oversized budget last June. There were $2.3 Million in proposed cuts and savings on the table. Unfortunately, only about $100,000 of those cuts were actually voted through the budget process.

As a first term Councilor, I have realized that the municipal budget process is done entirely backwards. In any business, or even with our household budgets, you first look at income, and then build a budget that fits that income. Everyone knows it’s not good to spend more than you have. The municipal budget automatically includes big projects, and level funding of all departments from one year to the next. This means the budget is going to the Mayor, and ultimately the Council with huge items already included, eating up a large portion of our yearly revenues. Ideally, Westfield would move to a Zero-based budgeting approach, where every program and department starts at $0, and the department heads must justify every dollar they receive.

One issue with the budget process can be seen in the current debacle in the School Department budget. The School Department currently has a budget gap of $2.9 Million for the next fiscal year. The primary reason for this, is because of salary increases. I am not against salary increases for Teachers, and many of the hard-working folks in our schools. The reason I voted against all salary increases for every department in the last budget, and will continue to vote against all salary increases, is because we only have the percentages of these increases, and not the actual numbers in the union contracts. We don’t know what the numbers are based on. No one at City Hall was able to show me during the budget votes, where the actual money for salary increases was going to come from. I refuse to vote for more spending, when I don’t know where the money is coming from.

The ever-growing budget, and our ever-growing liabilities are why I have advocated that any salary increases for municipal employees be offset with cuts from other areas of the budget. I am also concerned when I see state budget cuts occurring, yet we were aware that the state tax revenues were forecast to come in under projections, before we completed the municipal budget. If state funding for programs and projects is lost, I don’t believe we have the money to help make up that funding. We cannot keep going back to the taxpayers year after year, and demand they pay more money, when their roads look like a warzone, and their schools are not being properly funded. It is municipal government’s job to find cost savings, and wherever possible to avoid tax increases.

One of the first orders of business for both the City Council and the State Legislature this year was to vote on giving themselves raises. Yes, you read that right… The Council voted at our last meeting on the proposed raises, moving to $13,000 at the next election, stepping up at each election until 2020, when the Council salary would be $15,000. I voted NO to the raises, and here’s why. Not to belittle the work my colleagues do on the Council, because they all put in a lot of time and effort, but we knew the salary when we ran. Looking at the major budgetary shortfall coming from the State, and with a giant gap in our School Department budget, it is shameful in my opinion to be asking for more money from taxpayers. The Council salary increase failed, because it requires 7 votes, and only received 6 votes, due to the absence of 2 Councilors at our last meeting. It is up for a re-vote at the next Council meeting, so if you are against this, please contact Councilors to let them know.

At the State level, I want to thank Senator Don Humason for voting NO on the giant legislative salary increases. Don was the only legislator in Western Mass to vote against these unwarranted salary hikes. With the hard work he has put in over the years for the people of Westfield, and now for his district, Don is one of the few legislators that actually deserves a salary increase. So it makes it that much more meaningful that he voted against them. Governor Baker has pledged to Veto the salary increases, but unfortunately with one-party domination in the Statehouse, the Veto will be overridden. If you think these increases are as obscene as I do, then please call or email Sen. Humason and Rep. Velis, and ask them to vote against the Veto override.

Moving onto to Ward 3 business, there will be a meeting regarding the Western Ave. reconstruction project on January 31st at 7:00PM at the South Middle School. Regarding the project, I have concerns about the responsibility for snow removal for residents. The proposed bike lane/sidewalk on the North side of the street will be 12 feet wide. The Mayor and the law department have assured me that residents would only be required to clear a walkable path during winter months. I am taking them at their word, and giving a reticent approval to this project. Western Ave. is badly in need of resurfacing and new drainage, and without the $2.3 Million from Westfield State University, it won’t get done, because MassDOT is demanding a bike lane be included. Please attend this meeting to stay up to date with the progress of this project.

I am in the process of scheduling a Ward 3 meeting at Westfield Technical Academy for the end of February, and will post it online and in the Westfield News when a date is pinned down. I will also be working with Community Policing to setup a meeting for a Neighborhood Watch program about the same time. If you have interest in joining a Neighborhood Watch in the downtown areas of Ward 3, please contact me.

In other business, the Council will be working on a bond to extend Westfield Gas & Electric’s fiber internet service to 70% of the city over the next few years. It will be discussed at the next Council meeting. There are a lot of exciting cultural events slated for Spring, so stay tuned here in the Westfield News, and on my Facebook page at Facebook.com/AndrewKSurprise to stay up to date on happenings regarding ArtWorks and the events we will be putting on over the next several months.

I am available to all Ward 3 and Westfield residents. If you have any issues with the city with which you need assistance, please contact me at (413) 570-0899, or [email protected]. I also host regular monthly office hours at Press Room, in the Westfield News Building at 62 School St. My office hours are on the Second Monday of each month from 12:30pm to 2:00pm, and on the Fourth Monday of each month from 2:30pm to 4:00pm.

Till next month Westfield, enjoy the rest of your winter!

Your Current Ward 3 Councilor, Andrew K. Surprise

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