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Cohen cites Agawam's strengths

Date: 3/9/2011

March 9, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — Mayor Richard Cohen chose a new time and a new venue for this year's State of the City address, delivering his concise and positive speech at 11 a.m. on March 3 in the meeting room of the new Senior Center.

"I decided that I would bring the information to you, rather than having you have to go out for the information," Cohen told the many senior citizens who joined public officials, including City Council President Donald Rheault, Council Vice President Robert Rossi, Councilors George Bitzas and Jill Messick, Emergency Management Coordinator Chet Nicora, Jr., Fire Chief Stephen Martin and Deputy Fire Chief Alan Sirosis, at the pre-luncheon event.

Declaring that "there is no city better prepared to come out of these difficult economic times than Agawam," Cohen gave the audience a 10-minute overview of the town's strengths and most recent accomplishments.

"Every citizen can take pride in our community and where it is heading," Cohen said. "While the nation is struggling with the downturn of the economy, our community continues to provide the same top-quality services that our residents expect and deserve."

He attributed Agawam's strong financial position and ability to maintain services to its "solid reserve levels and conservative financial practices."

Balancing these strengths, he noted that the city still "faces difficult fiscal decisions every day," precipitated by reductions in state aid, lower motor vehicle excise tax receipts and reduced investment revenues.

Despite these fiscal challenges, Cohen assured citizens he would not "put any greater financial burden on our residents and businesses."

"This city will continue to operate within Proposition 2 1/2 and I will not ask for an override or new taxes and we will continue to live within our means." he said.

Cohen was also proud to tell the audience that Standard and Poor's had just raised Agawam's bond rating from AA- to AA. Quoting material from Standard and Poor's, he said this up-tick was based upon their "assessment of the city's continuing ability to manage and maintain consistent operating results and very strong financial reserves through various economic cycles."

Moody's Investor Services was equally pleased with Agawam's fiscal position, Cohen said, reaffirming the city's Aa3 bond rating.

In addition, he noted a 2010 independent audit of the city's financial structure by Powers and Sullivan did not uncover any issues.

"This was the 16th consecutive year that no material weakness in the design or operation of the internal financial control structures in the city of Agawam were found, another credit to the administration, to the department heads and our experienced financial team," he said.

Cohen went on to cite other strengths — a strong school system with high scores and a 91 percent high school graduation rate, consistently low crime figures — "the envy of all surrounding communities," top-notch fire and ambulance services and the lowest residential tax rate of any of the surrounding communities as more examples of the quality of life Agawam provides for its residents.

He also highlighted the growing economy of Agawam — noting the opening of 12 new businesses in the past fiscal year — and infrastructure improvements including the completion of phase one of the southwest area sewer project in Feeding Hills — as more pluses for residents.

Cohen recognized the assistance of City Council Vice President Robert Rossi in moving this project to completion.

Future improvements are to include a redesign of the route 187-N. West Street Feeding Hills intersection, which Cohen said is due to go out to bid, improvements to Route 187 North West Street to Westfield, a master plan for phase two of the School Street Park development and the Planning Board's compete review of the City's zoning laws to bring them into compliance with Massachusetts General Law.

"I think one of the key things is the future of the Feeding Hills sewer project," Rossi told Reminder Publications following Cohen's remarks. "That's the kind of investment we need to make to secure and increase our land values, increase our job possibilities, to increase the potential for outside communities to come and shop here. We're talking about residential and commercial growth, those are the kinds of things we need to invest in to make Agawam a better place."

He said when the phase two of the sewer project is finished, about 50 percent of the work will be completed and the town will have show it can "come up with a plan that everyone in the community can afford."

In terms of the upcoming budget cycle, Rossi said he felt the city needed to examine things department by department, looking for places were they could "tighten up" expenditures.

"It's not the first time there's been an economic downturn," Cohen said of the upcoming budget concerns following his speech. "We [in the administration] all feel the pinch that we feel at home and that's why I try to run the community as I would at home. We try to be aware of what we can afford to do and what we can't afford to do.

"This year is probably going go be the most difficult," Cohen continued. "We have never, ever laid anybody off, we have never cut services, and we've never had any fees. We're going to work to continue that and I hope that we don't have to lay any people off because that doesn't help the economy."

Cohen added Agawam was lucky in that it had completed many of its capital projects, such as the new Department of Public Works and Senior Center, during better economic times.

Many communities, he noted, are faced with making those capital outlays now, which "puts a burden on the taxpayers."

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