WESTFIELD — Though Westfield residents should expect to pay a bit more in local taxes this year, town officials said Tuesday that the increase should not be too drastic.
This year’s $49-million municipal budget, introduced Tuesday during a regular meeting of the Westfield mayor and council, includes a 1.98-percent increase in the tax rate over last year, Councilwoman and Finance Chair Linda Habgood said. All told, the increase represents an additional $4 responsibility per month per average household, or approximately $48 per year.
Statutory expenditures (including health insurance, Social Security, pensions, utilities and the town’s standing agreement with the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority) are up by about 5.16 percent (approximately $900,000) this year, Town Administrator Jim Gildea said. Other challenges for the 2022 budget include increases in salaries and wages (up 2.49 percent or $450,000 from last year) and operating expenditures for various non-discretionary costs across different departments (up 9.59 percent or $490,000 from last year).
Despite ongoing challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, however, Mr. Gildea said the town was able to replenish $3.8 million of its surplus account for a total balance of $9.4 million. According to this year’s financial presentation, the 2022 budget utilized those replenished funds to “manage revenue losses and [provide residents with] a lower tax rate.”
This year’s state-aid numbers indicate that the town is in line to receive approximately $3 million, the same allocation that it has been awarded since 2010.
In order to set Westfield up for increased opportunities in the future, Mr. Gildea explained, the town is prepared to show its support for a state-level initiative that would seek to reallocate taxes collected on gas and electric utilities back to individual municipalities.
“State aid is a bit of a misnomer in this case,” Mr. Gildea said during the council conference portion of Tuesday night’s meeting. “This is money that the towns are entitled to that the state took many years ago, and we would like to get that back in our pockets.”
Should the bill (S-330) pass the state legislature, Mr. Gildea said, Westfield and other municipalities like it could see “some major increases” going forward.
The council also voted to approve the introduction of a 2022 CAP bank (a permissible Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) that allows municipal governments to work around the state’s 2.5-percent limit on property-tax hikes) in order to, as the ordinance (designated 2022-10) states, “promote health, safety and welfare” for Westfield residents.
This year’s resulting 3.5-percent increase, which represents a 1-percent deviation from the state’s baseline allowance, amounts to an excess of $353,286.88 for a total annual appropriation of $1,236,504.08.
According to the CAP-bank ordinance, this year’s increase is both “advisable and necessary.”
As Tuesday night’s budget discussions continued, the council introduced a new capital budget ordinance that would allow the town to go to bond for approximately $3.2 million worth of improvements. According to the ordinance (special ordinance 2022-01), the funding will be used to resurface Elmer Street and install curbing and drainage improvements; clean up the stream at Mindowaskin Park and another near Fairview Cemetery; replace the roof on the Department of Public Works (DPW) building; replace the patio at the September 11th memorial; make improvements to the municipal building and its council chambers; install new benches, fencing and tables at various parks; purchase a front end loader truck and a new dump truck for the DPW; and undertake the design phase for sanitary sewer pump improvements. Funds also will be used to secure some necessary equipment for both the police and fire departments. In addition, Mr. Gildea said, the town plans to make “major improvements” to its roads and bridges as part of a large-scale, 26.53-mile repaving project in partnership with Elizabethtown Gas.
Some of the town’s anticipated capital expenses also will be covered by federal emergency relief funding under the terms of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). According to information provided by the state of New Jersey, ARPA funding can be utilized to recoup lost revenue, provide premium pay to essential workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, or, as Mr. Gildea explained, to offset the cost of certain capital projects.
Westfield is set to receive a total of $3,089,000 in ARPA funding from the federal government, Mr. Gildea said, noting that of that total, $833,912 will be used to cover revenue lost during the pandemic; $318,912 will be spent to recover lost revenue from the Memorial Pool; and $381,088 will be allocated to storm-water management and recovery.
In other town business, the council introduced an ordinance (2022-11) on Tuesday that would allow local restaurants to continue to serve alcoholic beverages in town “parklets,” defined as “an area over parking spaces adjacent to a sidewalk area upon which tables, chairs, umbrellas, landscaping, benches, and other accessory components may be placed to create an enhanced pedestrian experience for the general public and patrons of retail businesses, offering an area where one might sit, rest, recreate, socialize and/or indulge in an open air dining and beverage experience.”
Ultimately, town officials explained, the ordinance will allow restaurant owners to hold onto Covid-era provisions that extended outside-dining privileges to businesses that would otherwise not have been able to comply with social-distancing protocols. Although many pandemic restrictions, including those pertaining to indoor dining, have long since been lifted, town officials said the benefits outlined in the new ordinance should hopefully outlive the negative impact of the virus.
“As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become apparent that the public health is served by providing opportunities for open air social distancing by permitting patrons of food and beverage establishments to possess open containers of alcoholic beverages in certain areas of the Central Business District,” the ordinance states, adding “those [designated] open container areas would help both visitors to the Town and local residents safely enjoy the open spaces and food and beverage experiences that the Town of Westfield has to offer.”
Open containers will only be permitted in designated downtown areas, including parts of Quimby Street, East Broad Street, Elm Street and South Avenue.
The ordinance also includes provisions for “other times and areas of the Town in which the open consumption of alcoholic beverages should be formally permitted, such as during Town-sanctioned and permitted block parties, which are hosted by the residents of a block as a group, and special Downtown Westfield Corporation-sponsored events, such as Sweet Sounds Downtown.”
In addition, Mayor Shelley Brindle announced a contract award for a new bar and dining establishment inside the historic Westfield North Avenue Train Station later this year. The project, Mayor Brindle said, represents a partnership between the town, which owns the property, and Maize Cocktails and Cocina, the company that will oversee the day-to-day management of the new facility.
“With its globally-inspired cocktails and cuisine, casual and lively atmosphere, and thoughtful restoration of this historic building, Maize will play an important role in the revitalization of our downtown,” Mayor Brindle said.
The next meeting of the Westfield mayor and council will be held at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5, in the council chambers at town hall.