2009 State of the Town
Mayor Andrew K. Skibitsky
Earlier in this meeting, numerous citizens were appointed to serve on the various Boards and Commissions of the Town. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation to all those who have volunteered their time and talents to serve the residents of the Town. Let me also take this opportunity to recognize all those dedicated individuals who have just completed their terms. On behalf of the Town Council and all Westfield residents, thank you for your efforts and achievements.
And while on the subject of volunteerism, I would also like to thank all of the Council members for their hard work and dedication this past year. Their families, too, deserve special recognition: To the families – I know their service takes time away from being with you. Your support is essential and your sacrifice is deeply appreciated.
Westfield is indeed a very unique and fortunate town. Unlike most towns, our elected officials serve wholly as volunteers. The Town Council and I receive no salary, no expense budget, and no benefits, affording great savings to the taxpayers. Our best compensation is the distinct honor in serving the residents of our beloved Town.
I want to thank my wife, Debbie, and our children - Drew, Hope, Shane and Troy – for your love and encouragement. Debbie, it is because of your unselfish and steadfast support of me and our family that I am able to serve as Mayor. I cannot thank you enough.
I would also like to recognize all of the department heads. Thank you for focusing on the big picture, being great team players and executing my “doing more with less” initiative on a day-to-day basis. I appreciate your dedication, your professionalism, and the results you have achieved so far.
And to each and every resident of Westfield, thank you for your individual contribution to making Westfield the truly unique and remarkable town that it is. When I first became your Mayor, I was asked for my thoughts on why people choose to live in this wonderful community. I remember answering the question with more questions: Can you imagine living every day in a place with broad, tree-lined streets, handsome and historic homes in attractive neighborhoods, and a centralized, pedestrian friendly downtown district with quaint locally-owned shops, national brand stores, and a wide variety of restaurants to suit almost every taste? (By the way, I would encourage everyone to patronize our downtown business district. In these challenging economic times, we can all help one another by keeping Westfield strong.) Can you imagine living every day in a community that values education, culture and family recreational activities? Westfield has its very own accomplished symphony orchestra and award-winning playhouse, over 200 acres of municipal parklands with fields and facilities for almost every outdoor activity imaginable, and one of the top ranked school districts in the state. Can you imagine living in a tranquil, safe and primarily residential town - the quintessential suburban community - yet having quick and easy access to all the region has to offer by way of a centralized train station, numerous bus lines with direct service to New York City, nearby State highways, and Newark International Airport a mere 25 minute jaunt from your home?
It is important that I mention this now because, in facing perhaps the most complex and challenging economic climate in decades, we need to be reminded of our blessings.
As I have said many times during the past year, it seems you can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about the fiscal crisis confronting the State of New Jersey. On New Year’s Eve, The Star-Ledger reported that the Governor will push back the introduction of his next state budget because, according to State Treasurer David Rousseau, “treasury officials are four to six weeks behind schedule trying to plug a $1.2 billion hole in the current budget.” And just yesterday, on New Year’s Day 2009, a headline on the front page of The Star-Ledger read, “Expect to see tumbleweeds at City Hall in the coming year”, alluding to the impact the national recession coupled with the state’s fiscal crisis will have on local governments. In the article, Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, commented, “I think Mayors and governing body officials are bracing themselves for what can be the most difficult time in recent history. What we have here is the perfect storm.”
In the past year, as the state’s economic woes intensified, the term “reinventing government” has been used more and more to describe the course of action local governments must take in order to survive the crisis. Let me assure you that my administration began to “reinvent government” the day I took office because I believe it is the right course of action in ANY economy. And because Westfield is primarily a residential community without significant commercial ratables to offset residential property taxes, residential property owners like you and me pay 93% of the aggregate property taxes levied, making the stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the Town’s resources even more crucial.
Like so many of my fellow residents, I have a “regular” job in the business sector here in New Jersey. I understand what it is like to have the threat of downsizing hanging over your head. I have four children, with 2 presently in college. I understand what it is like to want to provide the best for your children. Owning a home, I also understand what it is like to want to protect your property values, for many their largest investment. I empathize with those who may be on a fixed income and with those who may be confronted with an extended illness or sudden unemployment.
Fortunately, the Town of Westfield is in a far better position than it would have been in had we not began to “reinvent government” when we did. Unlike the state, the Town of Westfield’s operating budget is formulated under the “pay as you go” principle. I know that if Trenton had managed their finances as efficiently and effectively as Westfield has and also had to follow the same rules and regulations it imposes on municipalities, the State would not be in as severe a financial crisis that it currently is in.
Let me share with you some of the progress made to date in our “reinventing government” initiative. It began with questioning each line item of the municipal budget to identify and, wherever possible, implement every conceivable efficiency and cost savings. One area where this effort has yielded significant savings that will certainly reverberate into the future is in the area of personnel costs. For example, staffing levels for each department are continually analyzed and headcounts are reduced wherever possible without impacting the delivery of services. Since 2006, 8 full-time positions have been reduced to 8 part-time positions, 3 full-time positions and 2 part-time positions have been completely eliminated, for an immediate savings of $350,000. In addition to the reductions in staff, effective collective bargaining negotiations have resulted in very modest increases in the salaries and wages line, the aggregate total up only 5.1% since 2006, an average of only 1.7% per year. Effective collected bargaining negotiations along with negotiated plan design changes have also contributed to keeping rising medical insurance in check. Over the 3-year period since 2006, insurance costs have increased a reasonable 3.41% per year at a time when market rates were increasing between 12% and 15%. During the same period, in addition to managing personnel costs, departmental operating budgets increased only slightly, a total of 2.6%, an average of less than 1% per year. Unfortunately, costs that are not under the control of the Town but the Town is nevertheless obligated to pay, including state mandated costs (such as the funding level for the Westfield Memorial Library) and other non-discretionary costs (such as those assessed by the Rahway Valley Sewage Authority) have increased an outrageous 25.8% since 2006.
In addition to reducing expenditures, shared services plays a role in controlling costs to the Westfield taxpayer and increasing operating efficiencies. Westfield was a leader in promoting shared services long before it became the State’s “solution” to controlling property taxes. The Westfield Regional Health Department, which serves eight area municipalities, may be the best known shared service, but we also participate in many smaller but equally effective ones, such as the agreement with the Township of Scotch Plains that allows the use of each other’s conservation centers to dispose of leaves. The Town also participates in cooperative purchasing agreements, a sister of shared services, to take advantage of pre-negotiated volume pricing for goods and materials.
In addition to managing costs under the control of the Town, the Town’s financial plan includes exploring ways to enhance revenues and limiting debt obligations. On the revenue side, the State of New Jersey imposes severe limitations on how municipalities may generate revenues, so the Town is basically limited to examining allowable user-type fees and pursuing all grant opportunities. With respect to limiting debt, as I stated earlier, the Town employs a “pay-as-you-go” approach to its fiscal management decisions, resulting in the level of debt at a minimal 8% of the amount permitted by law. (The Town only borrows to appropriately fund long-term capital improvement projects.)
Clearly, despite all the progress the Town has made “reinventing government”, we will continue to be challenged by the State’s long-term fiscal problems, so we must not rest on our laurels. Given the current economic climate and the uncertainty surrounding the State’s budget, I am very concerned about another reduction in the Consolidated Municipal Property Tax Relief funding, commonly referred to as State Aid. I would note that in 2008, the State claimed it was “cutting” costs by reducing State Aid to municipalities when, in fact, by cutting the very appropriation specifically dedicated to offset local property taxes, what the State was really doing was passing it’s fiscal problems on to the local governments. Tonight, I am calling on the Governor to cease making cuts to the funding specifically earmarked for property tax relief.
In closing, I want to reassure every Westfield resident that I am, along with the other Town officials and our dedicated professionals, working very hard to maximize efficiencies and minimize spending while continuing to deliver the services the residents have come to expect. We will continue to scrutinize every budget line throughout the year, we will continue to keep personnel costs in check by negotiating reasonable labor contracts that are fair to the taxpayers and fair to our dedicated employees. We will continue to study ways to enhance revenues, particularly in the area of grant opportunities. We will continue to look for ways to reduce departmental operating budgets. We will continue to “do more with less”. Our goal is to minimize the 2009 tax increase as best we can while preserving both the character of the Town as well as the quality of life so important to our residents.
Lastly, let’s not forget to count our blessings. Westfield is a beautiful Town with great community pride and spirit. It is, and will always be, a wonderful place to live, work and visit.