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Knapik brings "State of City" report to residents

Date: 4/4/2012

April 4, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

WESTFIELD — Mayor Daniel Knapik is taking his "State of the City" presentations on the road for the next few weeks and a recent stop brought him to the city's downtown Senior Center.

Additional presentations are scheduled for April 10 at Munger Hill Elementary School and April 17 at Paper Mill Elementary School. Both of those presentations are slated to begin at 6:30 p.m.

Knapik visited the Senior Center shortly after lunch on March 28, and despite the threat of rain and high winds, 36 residents filled the tables and chairs of the modest auditorium to listen and later, ask questions about parking problems in the lots around the center and traffic in their neighborhoods, especially around Westfield State University.

The mayor started his presentation with a basic overview of city revenue, noting the ongoing reductions in state-sponsored unrestricted local aid and school funding — which have dropped $2 million and $1.5 million respectively from fiscal year (FY) 2009 to 2012. He also highlighted an up tick in the cost of funding the city's municipal health insurance for employees, which increased $2.3 million during the same time period.

Bright spots in the city's finances included a $375,000 drop in the city's debt service appropriations since FY09 and a recent reported net direct debt of $1.1 percent of market value — or $889 per capita — according to Standard and Poors.

"Here's the story for the city of Westfield," Knapik explained. "Ten years from now, if we don't borrow anything, 80 percent of everything on the books is gone."

Looking to FY2013, Knapik noted that the "enormous cost" of cleanup following the June 1, 2011 tornado — $255,000 — and Oct. 29, 2011 snowstorm — $1.1 million — would have a direct effect on the tax levy. He vowed to maintain a levy of no more than 2.5 percent, through a "mix of cost saving measures and reserve funds.

Other factors impacting FY 13 budgeting, Knapik said, include the outcome of collective bargaining agreements, the cost of municipal health care and pension funding, a loss of $1.5 million in funding for the school department, and the costs involved in creating a new central dispatch for the police and fire departments, equipment purchases and building repairs.

"It's going to cost us some money because, by state law, we must have two dispatchers [working per shift] that can dispense medical advice," Knapik said of the dispatch project

He said the combined dispatch would mean that three firefighters who currently man that department's dispatch system would be returned to duty, and the Police Department would be able to move officers from dispatch back to the records department, giving the public access to police records 24/7. In addition, Westfield would be looking to regionalize the dispatch system gong forward, potentially bringing in income from other communities.

In the area of safety services, Knapik said that, after having been "on the radar" for more than a decade, he has finally authorized the fire department to enter into a seven-year lease-to-buy agreement for the construction and purchase of a new platform truck. He said construction wouldn't begin until the company gets the first payment — estimated to be $250,00 per year but once that is received the city should take delivery of the new fire apparatus in about 18 months.

Knapik said the city would begin to "chip away" at the myriad repairs to city-owned buildings including City Hall during FY 2013, with an estimate of expenses for this budget year at $50,000.

"We came up with a plan and the best way to pay for it," Knapik said.

Projected projects for FY12-13 include construction of the first phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail, which Knapik said was slated to begin "within the next few weeks," sidewalk and repaving work, as well as roadbed lowering at the railroad bridge " so the trucks don't have to swerve to the middle" on the Elm Street connector, road work in what's termed the Gas Light District, reconstruction of Arch Road — part of a multi-year project to improve traffic in the turnpike exit area — and work on the Pochassic Street Bridge.

In addition, Knapik said this summer would see "extensive repair work" on many of the city's school buildings, including Westfield Vocational-Technical High School, Westfield High School, North Middle School, and Paper Mill, Munger Hill, Highland Avenue and Southampton Road elementary schools.

"This is a huge investment in our schools," Knapik said, "If we didn't participate in the [Massachusetts School Building Authority Green Repair] program, we wouldn't be able to get where we are going."

Additional repair work is slated at the Fire Department headquarters, several fire stations, the Police Department headquarters, Department of Public Works building and the building used by Head Start.

Knapik said Westfield is also in negotiations with two alternative energy companies to install solar panels on two tracts of city-owned land some at the Twiss Street Transfer Station, which will channel electricity back to the city to help cut utility costs, and another that will utilize land at Barns Regional Airport.

Following his presentation, Knapik told Reminder Publications that the Senior Center's location-centric concerns were typical of what he sees as he meets with constituents in different wards of the city. At a meeting on March 26 at Southampton Road Elementary School, he said residents were concerned about the gas-fired power plant that is proposed for Ampad Road.

"I was pretty clear about what I can do and what I can't do," Knapik said. "The die was cast 30 years ago [in that neighborhood]."

He expects to hear neighborhood specific concerns when he meets with residents at his next two presentations.

Residents with questions about the mayor's "State of the City" presentations can call the Mayor's Office at 572-6201.

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