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Mayors wrestle with budget

"Budget challenger" Mayor Michael Boulanger (far right) took to the ring as he tried to overcome a $4.8 million shortfall. "These decisions are tough ... but you've got to do something about it," he said. Illustration by Leo Pilares, Graphic Design Department
Boulanger falls $4.8 million short preparing FY09 budget

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD Mayor Michael Boulanger was faced with a conundrum during the formation of his first fiscal operating budget a shortfall of approximately $4.8 million.

In an interview with Reminder Publications, Boulanger explained, "every [city] department has given up something" in order to balance the fiscal year 2009 (FY09) budget. He added that the only exception was for the Department of Emergency Management, which received an increase of $41,000 for the new citywide emergency notification system, 3n.

"I'm the new kid on the block and this is just something that has got to be done," Boulanger said. "These are tough decisions and it's heartbreaking but when you're about $4.8 million short of the money you need to pay the bills you've got to do something about it."

He noted that he has been able to complete the overall operating budget with the exception of one department the School Department must cut $2.3 million out of their proposed $54.9 million budget.

Boulanger explained that despite an increase in Chapter 70 funding, it is not enough to cover the 6.2 percent budget increase proposed by the School Department.

"I know we need to cut back on the school funding but I would like to do it over a period of years to allow the schools to comfortably tighten their belts," Boulanger explained. "If I cut $2.3 million this year it will be totally devastating [to the department]. I'm trying to minimize the amount of damage that a drastic cutback would cause."

Superintendent Shirley Alvira said, "We have already cut this budget to the bone. When I came in [July] there was a shortfall of $800,000. I nickel and dimed for a year."

Alvira explained that she is now "looking at [cuts for] everything outside of the classrooms." She added that she is concerned about how such a large-scale budget cut will affect staff morale.

When asked if she has considered closing any schools, she said no because it would not be cost effective.

Alvira said she will be working extensively with the School Committee and the mayor over the next several weeks to try and trim the budget; however, she added, "I will fight for the kids of this school system. You just can't pull the plug and my role here is to advocate for the kids."

Ward One City Councilor Christopher Keefe, also a member of the Finance Committee, said the FY09 budget process has already proven to be challenging for the mayor and will continue to be once the City Council receives the budget next month.

"We've had some bills piling up . We're tapped out and there are no other sources of revenue. Something's gotta give," Keefe said. "The School Department has enjoyed a funding level higher than state mandated minimum despite declining enrollments. The School Department is 50 percent of the [city's $115 million] budget, they're going to have to shoulder 50 percent of the load."

Keefe noted that there have been no talks among councilors to use funds in the city's stabilization account a rainy day fund with a current balance of $1 million or a Proposition 2 1/2 override in order to supplement budgetary shortfalls.

Keefe explained that despite an increase in state aid for FY09, the rising costs of insurance will devour that additional funding.

Boulanger noted that the city also has a limited amount of free cash approximately $220,000 to supplement rising operating costs.

He explained that he is also "trying to avoid cutting back on jobs on the city side because we are [operating] minimally [staffed] right now."

Boulanger also noted that Capital Improvement Projects are also some of the "lowest priorities because we want to keep [funding] education."

Boulanger said he plans to present the City Council with the completed FY09 budget by the first week in June.