WESTFIELD, NJ — The town council discussed a preliminary budget that would raise municipal property taxes by about one half of a percent during its conference meeting Tuesday. A budget presentation to the public is planned for the next council meeting on March 27.

Councilwoman Linda Habgood, chair of the finance commitee, and Town Administrator Jim Gildea gave the budget presentation to the full town council.

The proposed budget includes plans to allocate about $4.2 million of the town’s $14.2 million surplus toward investments in the town, such as new equipment for the department of public works and equipment for the conservation center.

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Finance committee vice chair Jo Ann Neylan and finance committee member Doug Stokes, both Republicans, expressed displeasure that half of the committee — Democrats David Contract and Habgood —  inserted $1 million of that surplus money into the proposed budget during last-minute unofficial meeting that Neylan and Stokes were not at.

Stokes said he was at all eight of the scheduled budget meetings.

“Then, over the weekend, if I can quote your email, it says, ‘I plan to be in the conference room at town hall Monday to go over the presentation with Jim [Gildea]. Feel free to join,’” Stokes said to Habgood. “It was never an official meeting. When you work on a presentation, in my experience on town council, that’s just going over the presentation that you presented tonight with Jim.”

When he found out about the change, he said,  “I must admit that was a little bit of a shocker for me.”

“We never had a one final meeting where we sat down and were able, as a committee, to go over these numbers,” Neylan said. “When I got the numbers they were different by a million dollars from the numbers that are presented this evening.”

Habgood apologized.

“I didn’t anticipate last night ending up in a discussion about changing the numbers,” Habgood said. Seeing the numbers in the spreadsheets for the first time, she said, they realized that the town had generated more than $4.2 million of additional surplus during the course of 2017.

“The money sitting in surplus, the cash that the town has, earns .75 percent,” Habgood said.

Councilman Frank Arena urged caution.

“Let’s be careful with that surplus, because we built that over the years,” he told the council.

“I think the major story here tonight is that we’re using all of the surplus that we generated last year,” Neylan agreed. That’s about 30 percent of the total surplus, she pointed out: “Surplus that I’ve been around long enough to know it took about 10 years to build up.”

According the town’s 2018 municipal budget summary, in addition to the town’s statutory functions, the 2018 budget includes funding for the following items in each category:

Enhancing communication and transparency: Hiring of a new public information officer; funds for a new town website; and funds for live streaming meetings and technology upgrades.

Improving services and operating efficiencies: Continue replacing aging public works equipment; replacing and adding public works employees to bolster services; hiring an engineering inspector for proactive inspections of various projects and roads; and funds for a new residential app for reporting issues and management tracking.

Improving downtown business climate and growing non-property tax revenue: New events, including a new town-wide signature event for the fall and other new events working with the Downtown Westfield Corporation; a new shared service to perform proactive sewer cleaning in the downtown; and using older police vehicles to serve on utility projects to create a source of revenue to offset police department expenses.

Engaging the community: Funds for school safety (Due to recent events and in collaboration with the board of education, the town has assigned additional officers to Westfield schools); funds for the master plan process, including hiring experts to focus on parks and fields, parking, firehouse feasibility study and the master plan process; and  increasing awareness of historic preservation with events such as new speaker series and expansion of Green Team events.

In addition to these items, the town council continues working on the annual capital budget, which includes pay-as-you-go funding for road projects, according to the summary, and downtown improvements in conjunction with the Downtown Westfield Corporation are also being considered as part of the capital budget along with pedestrian safety enhancements at various locations around town.

During the meeting, Neylan said that she had issue with increasing the size of the budget.

“My fear — or my concern — is that we are growing the government, and that’s fine if that’s the objective,” Neylan said. “This is not something that I believe in.”

One example Neylan noted was  the allocation of  $35,000 for public events.

“This is something that is expected to be kind of an iconic, unique event to Westfield that will actually be self-sustaining in terms of revenue producing going forward,” Mayor Shelley Brindle replied. “For me, this is about an investment in our downtown that will pay for itself over time relative to the $30,000 marketing expense.”

“But we have $40,000 [allocated] for a public information officer, and also ... additional money for the website,” Neylan said.

“Jim [Gildea] and I had lunch with the Summit mayor and the Summit business administrator on Monday, who have a chief communications officer, they have a public information officer,” Brindle said.

“When they heard what we went through last week without a communications professional, they were floored,” she said, referring to the two nor’easters that caused road closures, power outages and damage throughout town.  “And the PIO — just hear me out —  is considered an emergency staff, executive staff member in most municipalities in this day and age. And in today’s world, people and residents expect to get information in real time, and in absence of that they assume the worst. It is not a luxury. It’s necessary to conduct business with the town. And you can dispute that, but I tell you what — I fall on my sword for that. Because it is absolutely essential.”

Neylan said that she remembered Superstorm Sandy when the town, under Mayor Andy Skibitsky’s leadership, was held up as an example of having the most efficient communication.

“Sandy was five years ago — a lot happened in communications. The expectations are completely different today,” Brindle responded.

The budget will not be up for approval until two weeks from now, Habgood told the council.

“If there are lingering concerns about what’s in this presentation, that’s what this process is about and we’re more than open to having discussions about that,” she said.

Residents can send questions about the budget to the council at Budget@WestfieldNJ.gov.