The Town’s surplus funds are like the savings account that we all try to maintain for our own households. Surplus is critical for towns to address unanticipated and unbudgeted costs, for example those brought on by blizzards, hurricanes and, yes, global pandemics. They protect against periods of economic turmoil, and they help to earn and maintain a AAA credit rating, which Westfield achieved in 2014 and which reduces the borrowing costs to taxpayers for capital improvements. Today, that stellar credit rating is at risk.
When Mayor Brindle took office on January 1, 2018, Westfield enjoyed a robust surplus account of $14.5 million. Even before COVID-19, the Town’s preliminary 2020 budget showed a surprisingly low $7.4 million surplus at year end. The Mayor’s recently introduced budget, on which the Town Council will vote on May 26, is even more alarming — projecting a surplus balance of only $7 million on Dec. 31, 2020.
What will Westfield taxpayers have received in exchange for the spending of $7.5 million of our collective savings by the Brindle Administration in the past three years? New athletic fields for our children? Not a single one. A performing arts center in the shuttered Rialto or an improved streetscape downtown? Nope. How about the reduction or elimination of the Town’s sewer fee or parking fees in light of the pandemic? Wrong again. In fact, earlier this year, the sewer fee was increased by more than 18%, a classic tax gimmick used to help plug a growing budget hole.
As a result of the Brindle Administration’s excessive spending and financial mismanagement, $7.5 million in taxpayer savings will have disappeared. That money now cannot be used to help Westfield residents and downtown businesses overcome the financial consequences of COVID-19; it is not available to cover unplanned expenses incurred if a Superstorm Sandy-like climate event hits again this year; and it cannot be accessed now or in the future to improve our parks, playing fields, and playgrounds.
Mayor Brindle likes to point to the many newly paved roads in Town as an example of surplus money well spent. But paving projects are generally funded with money from our capital budget, not surplus funds from our operating budget. And a majority of the work was (and will be) paid for by Elizabethtown Gas, with the Mayor happily benefiting from the timing of their long-planned underground pipeline replacement program.
The Mayor is less quick to admit that the Town budget has increased by more than $4.1 million since she took office; that this year’s property tax levy increase is at the maximum allowed by state law, providing no pandemic relief to taxpayers; and that due to her policies, non-property tax revenues (largely paid by non-residents) from construction fees and permits, parking, municipal court, and interest on the Town’s investments, decreased by more than half a million dollars last year compared to 2018, and are expected to decrease by another $1 million in this year’s budget.
Our surplus savings are not being depleted because of road paving or COVID-19, but because of overspending and flawed governance. This is not politics, it’s math. And basic arithmetic shows that if Mayor Brindle’s spending and shortsighted policies remain unchecked, Westfield’s surplus will be gone in the very near future. Also gone will be the Town’s hard-earned AAA credit rating and, most importantly, our ability to address and overcome ongoing and future financial challenges.
JoAnn Neylan, Chairwoman
Westfield Town Republican Committee