In a case of déjà vous, Mayor Andy Skibitsky was criticized by his vanquished 2009 rival over Tuesday's report of a downgrade in the town's credit rating by a Wall Street firm.
Bill Brennan, who lost to Skibitsky in a landslide, said Moody's Investor Service's decision to downgrade the town's credit rating from Aa1 to Aa2 is a validation of the finance platform he raised during last year's campaign. During the race, Brennan made the Skibitsky administration's reliance on spending surplus funds a main issue, along with raising questions about the mayor's participation in budget meetings. In the rating report, Moody's raised concerns over the town's reliance on surplus spending, including spending all but $711 in the town's roughly $3.8 million sale of assets account in three years.
"When you read the Moody's downgrade report it looks like my campaign literature," Brennan said. "This is the sign of more things to come."
In the report downgrading the town's credit rating, Moody's cited the surplus spending, along with noting that the town has been hindered by the state's former four percent hard cap on property tax increases. The report did praise the town for implementing a multi-year capital plan to better manage town debt and that town officials are not looking to obtain more debt in the near future.
Skibitsky and Councilman Mark Ciarrocca, the chair of the finance committee, both said the report shows that state property tax cap has caused issues with town budgeting and said it shows a need to adopt Gov. Chris Christie's proposed property tax toolkit to allow town officials more management tools. Both defended the surplus spending policy, saying it has protected jobs and town services.
Wall Street insiders told Patch that the report will likely cause a slight increase in town interest rates, but should be seen as more of a warning sign to town officials about the surplus spending policy. Brennan said he agrees, saying that he gives more faith to the Moody's report than to the AAA bond rating award by Standard & Poors in July 2009 when the town sought a rating for refinancing the town's over $8 million in debt.
"If you look at the roots of the housing market collapse, it is blamed on the rating system, because they rated every garbage piece of paper as AAA when it was not worth the paper it was written on," Brennan said, saying he believes that S&P should not have given the town a AAA bond rating in 2009.
Skibitsky campaigned on the AAA bond rating during his win over Brennan, a former town judge. The mayor said his administration has not hidden the surplus spending plan and said his receiving 63-percent of votes in 2009, the largest win for an opposed mayoral candidate in the last two decades, shows town residents support his fiscal agenda.
"We were upfront on the surplus every year," Skibitsky said. "Everything was out there for Westfield residents to see and I think they appreciate what we've done."
Skibitsky also shot back at Brennan's criticism, questioning how Brennan would have handled the town's revenue shortfall and cut in state aid if he were not to touch the surplus.
"The question to Mr. Brennan is what would he have done differently," Skibitsky said. "How many police officers or firefighters would he have laid off?"
Brennan also renewed his call for Skibitsky to attend meetings of the Council's finance committee and open the meetings up to the public, a point he made a centerpiece of last year's campaign. Skibitsky responded to Brennan by repeating comments from 2009 about his attendance at many budget policy meetings over the years.
"I think the Westfield residents spoke in the election," Skibitsky said. "They know how hard I work on their behalf and I spend a lot of time in finance meetings."