Westfield Mayor Andy Skibitsky, in his eighth State of the Town Address, began the annual reorganization meeting Wednesday night with a moment of silence for the "innocent lives lost" in Newtown, Conn.
Skibitsky then addressed the Town of Westfield's ongoing crisis preparedness and said the Town has long had a comprehensive emergency plan in place, which is reviewed and practiced with students and staff on a regular basis.
"Last month a joint meeting was held between the Town and the school district to discuss emergency preparedness, specifically in context of the Newtown tragedy," Skibitsky said.
While the mayor said the safety protocols are maintained in a confidential manner, he directed residents to Town of Westfield's website to view a report of that meeting. (Click here or visit the Westfield BOE's website to see the report as well.)
Skibitsky then began his address by noting that he and members of the council are volunteers who, for their service, receive a symbolic paycheck of $1 per year, which, in keeping with longstanding tradition "does not get cashed." He added that they receive no other compensation, no benefits and no expense reimbursement for their efforts.
"Our only compensation is the distinct honor of serving the residents of this great town," said Skibitsky, who added that Westfield is the largest municipality in New Jersey to seat an unpaid governing body.
Skibitsky thanked council members for their dedication to residents. Further, he expressed his gratitude to members' families for their patience, love and support.
The mayor thanked residents for their resilience and patience following superstorm Sandy.
"Volunteerism, altruism and community are clearly in Westfield's DNA. This was never more evident than in the aftermath of Sandy," said Skibitsky, who noted that while Westfield incurred no loss of life due to the storm, he was saddened to report that 13 homes sustained damage to the point that they have been deemed uninhabitable. Fifty-three other homes sustained extensive damage, yet the mayor said considering the magnitude of storm, "let us never forget to count our blessings."
He thanked the police and fire departments and volunteer rescue squad as well as public service employees who worked all night in the wake of Sandy under "very dangerous conditions."
Skibitsky said he was heartened by hearing story after story of neighbors helping neighbors in the storm's aftermath.
"I'm very proud of the community spirit our residents demonstrated time and time again. Such compassion is what binds us together as a community," he said.
Skibitsky reminded residents that the Town of Westfield has partnered with the Westfield United Fund to help those residents most impacted by the storm. Anyone interested in making a donation can visit westfieldunitedfund.org.
The mayor said residents were not the only ones affected by storm. He said business owners were also adversely impacted and once again asked residents to consider "Westfield first" for their shopping and dining needs in an effort to keep the base of the local economic community strong.
The mayor said his ongoing objective is to contain costs and bring spending down to more sustainable levels while still keeping Westfield a desirable place to live, work and visit. While it has been a challenge to balance the wants and needs of residents with limited resources, the mayor said he had worked hard to make steady progress on this front, citing the refinancing of outstanding bonds at a "substantially lower interest rate" that will yield a savings of $180,000 over next five years.
While he said much has been accomplished in terms of cutting expenses, the decrease in non-property tax revenues has proven to be an "extraordinary challenge."
Referring to instituting 2012's first-ever sewer fee as a "last resort," the mayor said had it not been implemented a $1.3 million budget gap would have resulted. That shortfall would have forced services to be cut to levels council members unanimously agreed would be "unacceptable."
Skibitsky noted that 2012 municipal salaries and wages came in at slightly less than they were in 2005. Mostly through attrition, with the workforce down 20 percent from where it was in 2005, efficiencies and collaborating with unions was this able to be accomplished.
The mayor assured residents that even with this decline, public safety remains a top priority. He noted that Westfield employees:
- 52 police officers, plus a chief
- 5 public safety dispatchers
- 5 traffic enforcement officers
- 49 crossing guards
- 28 full-time firefighters, plus a chief and deputy chief
The mayor said he is confident that "we have set the foundation for long-term fiscal sustainability. We are on the right course and the future looks bright but we won't rest on our laurels."
Focus for 2013
In the new year, the Town of Westfield will employ affordable technologies to create greater efficiencies. The Town's website will be upgraded and made more user-friendly and will feature enhanced mobile access.
Currently, a pilot program in which commuters using numbered spaces on the southside of the train station can pay by using an app on their mobile phones is underway. If it proves successful, it will be implemented system-wide.
Residents were also reminded to follow the Town of Westfield on Twitter for updates.
In closing, the mayor said Westfield is about so much more than a budget or the economy; it is about its residents.
"The Town of Westfield is really about its people and I have great faith in the people of this town and it is an honor to serve you," Skibitsky said.