Having chaired the town council’s finance committee in the recent past, I appreciate the hard work that goes into developing a municipal budget for a town as large and dynamic as Westfield. But as I have expressed publicly and also to the mayor and my council colleagues, I do not support the adoption of Westfield’s 2018 municipal budget. Although the budget contains much that I agree with, in total it spends too much, hires too many and over-leverages Westfield’s future in favor of political expediency.
My primary concern is that we are spending nearly 30 percent of the town’s entire surplus to fund this year’s budget — surplus that took us six years to build and that can disappear very quickly. How can it disappear? Well so far this year we have experienced three major storms, which unexpectedly cost the town substantial money for overtime and debris disposal; we have the ongoing property revaluation with unknown consequences; we have new federal tax laws that limit deductions for local property taxes; and in the future public union employees can be given unlimited raises by arbitrators. Where will this money come from? Higher taxes. There are many levels of uncertainty and concern.
The budget also includes a record amount of spending, increasing municipal expenses by more than 6.5 percent — three times the rate of inflation for this year. That is alarming to me, and it should be to you. This level of spending is unsustainable. As I noted previously, it is being funded not with new sources of non-tax revenues, but with $4.275 million of surplus. If we continue to spend more than we generate in taxes and fees, we will have to dip into the remaining surplus for the next budget cycle just to maintain the same level of spending. Spoiler alert: We have never generated $4 million of surplus in a single year.
So the budget sets us on a downward spiral that in a short time will reduce our municipal savings far below the level we have worked so hard to achieve. This adversely affects each one of us because as the amount of surplus falls so will our AAA credit rating, making it more expensive to borrow money for worthy capital projects (like the suspended Tamaques Park field improvements) and translating into higher taxes for you and me.
Furthermore, this budget ensures that spending does not go down in future years. The town intends to hire consultants to provide services that typically have been performed by our town professionals, to the tune of $250,000 in fees. A needless dependency on outside consultants, is in my opinion redundant of the services we already pay for in-house. The budget also calls for hiring multiple new municipal employees (but not one firefighter or police officer), whose salaries and benefits will only increase over time. Finally, the budget dedicates funds for various projects that, while they may be worthy, are not areas for which I believe government should be spending our tax dollars. Once funding for these items start, it will be extremely difficult to stop.
I see this year’s proposed spending as the beginning of much larger, bloated future budgets, the hallmark of government spending creep; incremental spending increases which, once in the budget, are very unlikely to be removed. Coupled with the very real threat of reduced surplus and downgraded credit ratings, this will harm the town’s performance in the long term and creates an undue burden on Westfield taxpayers.
So while this budget at first blush may seem reasonable, a deeper look shows that we are spending too much and growing government. As I have said many times, if that is what you want, then this is a good start. But I have philosophical differences with the way our town’s money will be spent and, therefore, I cannot in good conscience vote to support the proposed 2018 municipal budget.
I take my role as a steward of the town very seriously and I cannot vote for a budget that is on a collision course with principles of financial soundness and stability.