Rail Trail funding cut with caveat

columbia greenway rail trail
The Columbia Greenway Rail Trail connects Westfield with Southwick, and beyond to Connecticut.

WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – The largest cut made to the FY18 city budget was $250,000 in the engineering department for design work on the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail, a contribution required from the city in order to receive a $6.2 million federal and state grant in FY19 for the next phase of the trail.

However, the cut was made with a caveat to support the design portion, and go forward with the grant. At Wednesday’s meeting of the whole City Council following the public hearing on the budget, Finance Committee chair Robert A. Paul, Sr. asked if any of the City Councilors had recommendations for cuts to the budget.

Ward 6 Councilor William Onyski spoke up, saying that many residents at the public hearing spoke for and against the funding of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail. “I think it’s a great investment,” Onyski said. He then asked if Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds could be used for the Rail Trail.

Onyski said he had looked up some of the other towns in Massachusetts that had both rail trails and CPA funds. He only got through the A’s and B’s before he found eleven towns that had used CPA funds for their rail trails.

Onyski then made a motion to reduce the engineering department by $250,000, and to fully support going in front of the Community Preservation Commission and requesting $500,000 in CPA funds for the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail. Onyski went on to say that as of July 1, the city will have $760,000 in CPA funds, and also additional funding from the state.

At-large Councilor Dave Flaherty said he agreed 100% with the plan. “It’s a creative solution which we talked about in committee. Try and get CPA funds – if it takes too long, have funds (available) in stabilization or free cash,” Flaherty said. He was referring to the July 1 deadline to commit the money raised by many proponents of the Rail Trail. At-Large Councilor Brent B. Bean, II also applauded Onyski for the motion. However, Bean said, “We can’t force the CPA Committee to support this. There is a process.”

Ward 1 Councilor Mary Ann Babinski said she would want to make sure the $250,000 gets to the Rail Trail. “I want to make sure we don’t lose that in the process of moving that around. The other suggestion is to take it out of stabilization and free cash,” Babinski said. After more discussion, and a failed attempt to reduce the engineering budget further, the motion to cut the engineering budget by the $250,000 to be allocated to the Rail Trail passed 8-5.

Following the meeting, Flaherty repeated that the City Council intends to fund the $250,000 for the Rail Trail with Community Preservation Funds or stabilization funds, if the mayor agrees to the proposal made by Councilor Onyski and the Finance Committee. “I think it’s a great idea. The only problem I had is that he thought of it before I did,” Mayor Sullivan said on Friday of Onyski’s proposal. He added that it’s a great opportunity to use a fund (CPA) that people are already paying into, and one that doesn’t come out of the general budget.

As for using Free Cash or the stabilization fund if CPA funds don’t go through, Mayor Sullivan wouldn’t commit. He did say however, that the discussion showed that the City Council is committed to funding the Rail Trail. “I give Bill Onyski credit for doing the research,” Sullivan said.

Don Podolski, owner of New Horizon Bikes, and one of the most vocal proponents of keeping the $250,000 in the engineering budget for the design work, was not as enthusiastic, especially about the timing. “It’s on a pretty tight schedule to retain the $6.25 million,” Podolski said. He said the design work had to be done on schedule in order to access the grant, and the Community Preservation Commission doesn’t meet again until mid-July. Podolski also questioned why the Rail Trail had to bear the brunt of the budget cuts, $250,000 out of $443,463. “That’s pretty extreme,” he said. “I’ll be interested to see if any of the Councilors show up at the CPA meeting to help us get the funds,” Podolski added. “We need all the support we can get.”