Orange struggles to come up with unified budget

ORANGE — In a town with so little money to spare, pulling a balanced budget together in time for the annual town meeting has proved challenging and contentious in recent years.

And this spring, the process has been just as rocky.

Finance Committee member Bob Anderson said he “went off on the selectmen” last month as “we can’t get any cooperation out of Town Hall.” Anderson, who was committee chairman at the time, said he repeatedly asked for budget figures from Town Administrator Diana Schindler.

“We need the numbers to put the budget together ... but we didn’t receive any information or a solution to the problem,” Anderson said.

Schindler said she sent Anderson some preliminary budgets for several departments last week, but until then, “there was no information to give.”

As Orange has been without an accountant until this month, she said the backlog of entries made it difficult to gauge year-to-date expenses and revenues. And there is no information yet about state aid for next year.

Feeling the press of time, Anderson pushed forward to start meeting with department heads about their budgets — whether or not they had already discussed them with Schindler.

Anderson said that he sent an email to Schindler and selectmen, setting a schedule for those meetings.

But department chairs “were not showing up to the meetings because they were instructed not to attend.” He said he became irate with selectmen after learning his email was never sent to employees.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith told selectmen several weeks ago, “Our town administrator seems confused about how we’ve done things in the past.” After meeting with the town administrator who “advises them on what a good budget would be,” she said department chairs would present their budget requests to Finance Committee members.

But Schindler said there were serious problems with how the process worked in the past few years.

Last year, the Finance Committee allowed department chairs only a short time to present their budgets. And many felt committee members were not really listening to them.

According to Schindler, employees felt demoralized through a budgeting process that “pitted each department against each other in a battle over limited resources.”

The resulting budget was lopsided, with some departments scraping by and others well funded, she said.

In the past two years, voters received two budgets, one presented by the Finance Committee, and an alternative version presented by another town official. Last year, Selectman Kathy Reinig presented an alternative budget, and in 2011, former Town Administrator Rick Kwiatkowski did the same.

“We all need to take a unified budget to town meeting that is a respectful use of tax dollars and still preserves services,” said Schindler.

Smith agrees with Schindler, “there should only be one budget presented to voters.”

Schindler said the budget process works best if department heads meet with her first, so she can develop a complete town budget. Selectmen should then review this budget before it goes to the Finance Committee.

After much discussion at the selectmen’s meeting last month, Smith agreed this process is best, but she argued it should be pulled together and sent to the Finance Committee much sooner.

Selectmen set March 1 as the deadline for the Finance Committee to receive the budget from now on.

Smith contends department heads should continue to present their budgets to the Finance Committee. “I don’t care how good the town administrator is, she can’t possibly know all the ins and outs ... and answer our questions” the way department heads can.

Schindler and the Selectboard agreed Schindler and managers will meet with the committee after she develops a complete town budget.

Due to Town Hall vacancies, the process will work a little differently this year, as Schindler sends committee members the budget “piecemeal” as she pulls it together by department.

Schindler added she is determined to get the budget to the public by May 1.

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