On March 10, 2020, just before the devasting human and economic impact of the COVID-19 virus would become widely known, Mayor Shelly Brindle released a “Bold Action Plan” for Westfield. In it, she criticized the Town’s prior budget policies that had, in her words, “taken a very conservative approach to budgeting which has effectively maintained the status quo while yielding a positive AAA bond rating and sizable surplus.” Quite an admission.
In announcing her new plan, Mayor Brindle mocked the sound fiscal management that successfully navigated Westfield through the economic consequences of 9/11, the Great Recession, and Superstorm Sandy, saying that it was an “approach that a financial advisor would apply to a couple in retirement, ensuring there is adequate funding to support basic needs for their remaining years, while leaving something for the grandkids.” Well, seven weeks later, it turns out that, as usual, grandma knows best.
There is no better evidence of the Brindle Administration’s mismanagement and profligate spending than the recently introduced 2020 Town budget. Among other lowlights, the budget includes (1) an increase in property taxes up to the state maximum; (2) continuing decreases from 2019 in parking, municipal court, construction, and other non-tax revenues that are paid in part by non-residents, due in large part to the Mayor’s anti-enforcement, anti-homebuilding policies; and (3) most alarming, and notwithstanding the Mayor’s prior assurances about “maintaining a healthy $10 million surplus,” Westfield’s 2020 municipal budget anticipates our year-end surplus to be only $7 million -- less than half what it was just two years ago.
Mayor Brindle inherited a budget surplus of $14.5 million in 2018. Under more prudent leadership, at least $7.5 million in additional surplus funds would now be available for Westfield to assist residents and local businesses to weather this financial storm; for example, by imposing no property tax increase, offering a partial refund to commuters who paid for parking permits they cannot use, or providing meaningful economic relief to downtown businesses. Instead, that money is gone, used to pay for parties and to plug budget holes.
Over the past few weeks, Councilman Mark LoGrippo has sounded the alarm about the exorbitant property tax hike and dangerous use of surplus that Mayor Brindle was set to propose in this year’s budget. Even though Councilman LoGrippo is a minority of one on the Town Council, his efforts helped to cut the Mayor’s preliminary 2.99% tax increase in 2020 by one-third. But even the Mayor’s 2% tax levy increase, the maximum allowed by state law and on top of this year’s 18% increase in the sewer fee, is more than Westfield residents should pay in light of the Town’s historic financial health.
Westfield residents will pay a far higher property tax increase in 2020 than those in neighboring towns like Scotch Plains and Berkeley Heights who, like many others, have found a way to impose no tax increase in their budgets this year. Even Union County, not known for its fiscal austerity, has introduced a budget with a tax levy increase of 0%. Leaders in other towns, like Wyckoff, are actually decreasing the property tax burden on their residents. "No tax increase is the right thing to do at this time, even though we all have rising costs," Wyckoff Mayor Timothy Shanley wisely observed. Westfield used to lead other communities in fiscal responsibility; now, we can’t even follow them.
In just over two years, the policies of the Brindle Administration have increased spending, reduced non-tax revenues (largely by design, as the Mayor admitted when introducing the 2020 budget), and raided our surplus savings account. Had Mayor Brindle continued rather than mocked the sound fiscal management that, even three years later, is keeping our budget hole from becoming a crater, the Town would be much better prepared to address unexpected, but inevitable, financial challenges like those now being caused by COVID-19.
Instead, Westfield’s robust surplus, the “healthy nest egg” that Mayor Brindle described on March 10 as the result of smart fiscal policies of the past, has been poached. Taxes are up, revenues are down, and more than half of our surplus is gone. Equally concerning, as noted at this year’s budget meeting, even greater fiscal challenges lie ahead. Grandma would not be pleased.