Elected officials are quick to incorporate fashionable words and phrases into their vocabulary: “proactive,” “strategic,” “sustaining.” Indeed, these terms and their derivatives each appear throughout Westfield’s 2018 municipal budget presentation (available for viewing at www.westfieldnj.gov), as does the grand-daddy of all local political pabulum: “doing more with less.”
Noticeably, however, Westfield’s proposed budget does not do more with less; rather, it does more with more. Much more. The budget spends more money than ever before – 6.56 percent more than last year, or three times the rate of inflation; it hires more employees and consultants – paying $250,000 to the latter all-new group; and it uses more of the town’s surplus – an unprecedented $4.275 million, or nearly 30 percent of all our municipal savings.
Westfield’s current administration promised residents more of everything during last year’s campaign, including more services, more communication and more street paving. But now they have to pay for it, and the town’s savings account is being raided to deliver on those promises. Increasing spending by more than 6.5 percent, and using surplus savings to do it, ill-serves Westfield residents, particularly those seniors on fixed incomes and others who do not hold C-suite jobs. Overspending has caused our federal and state governments to incur insurmountable debt; it appears that our local government may be next.
When candidates become decision-makers, responsible leadership often requires the fortitude to say “no.” I was happy to hear Councilwoman JoAnn Neylan say “no” when asked to introduce the town’s 2018 budget. Having more than a decade of municipal budgeting experience, she knows that if Westfield does not generate this year the same $4.275 million in surplus revenue that it is spending – an amount that we have never achieved – the town will start the 2019 budget process with a hole to fill. For example, if the town generates the same amount of excess revenue that it did in 2014, a healthy $2.775 million, we still will find ourselves in $1.5 million hole.
How to fill that hole? Apparently not with reduced spending in 2019, which defies the desire to do “more,” especially in what will be a local election year. That hole likely gets filled with funds from either or both of the two largest sources of municipal revenue: property taxes and surplus. Mercifully, property tax increases are capped (for now) at two percent; but not so increases in the use of surplus. The town’s surplus provides quick and easy access to cash – until it doesn’t. And when the ATM is empty, layoffs, bond rating downgrades, debt and cuts in services follow.
Not so long ago, in 2008, Westfield began the year with about $3.9 million in surplus savings; by 2012, out of necessity, that amount decreased to a mere $198,494. Many of you even have more savings than that. True, those were exceptionally hard times – cuts in state aid, decreasing housing values and property tax collections and imposition of the two percent levy cap. But who saw those hardships coming? What hardships are in our near future? What impact will the pending property revaluations, limitations on SALT deductions, elimination of the two percent arbitration cap on public employee contracts, and a continuation of ruinous storms, among other things, have on our municipal expenses and revenues?
The fiscal responsibility of the prior Westfield administration rebuilt the town’s surplus from less than $200,000 at the start of 2012, to more than $14.5 million at the start of this year, while staying below the two percent tax levy cap annually. Where will our town be after only a few years of the current administration's more spending, more hiring and more taxes? Likely in more trouble.