WESTFIELD, NJ—At Tuesday night’s town council meeting, a hearing was held regarding a new sewer fee that Westfield home and business owners will soon be charged. For more information about that fee, see The Alternative Press article here.

“Collecting this fee will allow us to continue services at the level they are now, including police and fire,” noted Councilman Sam Della Fera, chairman of the town’s finance policy committee. A frequently asked questions page regarding the fee will soon be available at the town’s website, www.westfieldnj.gov. The ordinance creating that fee, which affects only 2012, was approved unanimously by the council. (Councilman David Haas was the only member absent from the meeting.)

Mayor Andy Skibitsky said that this is the third year in a row in which the town reduced salaries and wages, noting that this was done through attrition, thus avoiding layoffs. He thanked Town Administrator Jim Gildea for working “tirelessly” for the town of Westfield before handing Gildea the microphone to explain the proposed 2012 budget, which was approved unanimously by the council later that evening.

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Gildea outlined the sharp decrease in revenue since 2009, from over $16 million to just over $12 million. Property taxes this year will increase just under two percent and, according to Gildea, the average home owner will likely pay $79 more in 2012 than in 2011.

He also announced that the town has applied for a SAFER grant from FEMA, which could result in the federal government paying for up to four additional firefighters’ salaries and benefits for up to two years. Recent changes in the grant process made applying for this grant more appealing to the town because there are now “no strings attached,” he explained. Westfield has also applied for a grant that could pay for up to two additional police officers.

After the presentation, two residents voiced their concern regarding the sewer fee. Jeff Bash said he felt the flat fee was unfair to those who use less water than others and he worried about the impact it would have on seniors.

Maureen Kehoe spoke of the mounting number of fees Westfield residents are paying for various reasons, and made reference to people she knew who were moving from Westfield to someplace less expensive. “The property tax burden is changing the face of Westfield,” she said.

In addition, “I’m philosophically opposed to calling a fee something that’s really a tax,” said Kehoe.

The mayor defended the fee, saying it was necessary because “there’s no more positions we can eliminate.”

“We know it’s a tax. You can call it whatever you want,” said Skibitsky. But he also said that, considering that the town only gets 17 percent of the taxes it collects, for all that residents get for that, “It’s not a bad deal.”

Gildea noted that some senior citizens are exempt from the sewer fee and that others will have the fee reduced by $25. “We’ve tried to address the senior population as best we can,” he said.

During the open discussion by citizens, one resident came to the microphone to thank the mayor and council for their hard work.

Moments later, resident Maria Carluccio questioned why people have “suddenly appeared, praising the council.”

Carluccio, Adina Enculescu and Greg Kasko regularly attend Westfield town council meetings, arguing again and again against the HAWK light and crosswalk on Central Avenue just in front of Enculescu’s home. They have complained that the system is impractical and even dangerous where it is, that Enculescu’s driveway now appears to be a road on which to turn and that the signal devalues Enculescu’s property.

“You choose to be here, and I appreciate it,” said Carluccio. What she doesn’t appreciate, she said, was how Enculescu “has been violated the way she has been violated.”

She referenced the February 14 town council meeting at which the council voted not to replace the HAWK light with a full light at the intersection despite a report that recommended that change.

Carluccio told the council that she was almost hit by a car at that crosswalk “the other day,” when two cars went through the red light. “What is it that has to happen there for all of you to be compelled to move this light?” she asked.

Regarding Enculescu, she said, “Do you understand what you’ve done to this woman’s life?” Enculescu had lived in Westfield for 30 years, she said. “All of the sudden she woke up one morning and her driveway was being ripped up.”

Carluccio accused Councilman Mark LoGrippo of representing the mayor’s will instead of his constituents’ best interests when he voted not to move the crosswalk. She also said she believed that the residents coming to meetings to side with the council’s decision were “all coached.”

Resident Lisa DiCicco approached the microphone to tell the council that when public meetings were being held regarding where the crosswalk would be placed, “The people on the corner objected.” She and others who lived in the middle of that block did not go to the meetings, she said, because they had no idea the light would be placed mid-block. “We found out when they started digging up the avenue,” said DiCicco.

“Now it’s them or us,” said DiCicco. “We’re not going to let you get away with it because we’re just as important as they are.”

The mayor later responded that he did not remember a public outcry by the residents who lived at the corner and that “to say that we put it there simply because the people at the corner fought it just isn’t accurate.”

When he approached the microphone, resident Greg Kasko suggested that the town consider placing cameras at intersections to catch drivers who run red lights and boost revenue from the resulting fines.

Kasko then argued that Mayor Skibitsky’s argument at past meetings that a mid-block crossing was preferable to one at an intersection because it had fewer “points of conflict” for pedestrians was based on data from crossings where no light existed.

Kasko asked the mayor to respond before he sat down so that he could respond to what the mayor said.

“Mr. Kasko, I’ll speak when I feel like it and you’re welcome to come back in two weeks,” Skibitsky replied.

Kasko then said he had collected data from a stretch of road about 113-feet long on Central Avenue between Cambridge and Clover that showed a spike in the average number accidents during the months since the HAWK system was put in place.

After Kasko sat down, the mayor responded. Regarding the “points of conflict” argument, he said that lowering the number of points of conflict from adjacent streets is important for pedestrians regardless of whether or not there is a light at the crossing. “We know that people run red lights,” he said.

He reminded Kasko that the recent report done regarding the crossing showed that the number of accidents near the crosswalk were consistent with the number of accidents there in the past and on similar roads.

After the council voted to pass the 2012 budget, the council went into executive session to discuss the retirement of Chief of Police John Parizeau.