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Friction felt in Orange budget process

Selectmen still waiting on some dept. requests

ORANGE — While the budget is slowly coming together in time for town meeting, the trickle of information from Town Hall has frustrated Finance Committee members.

In their Wednesday meeting, committee members expressed dismay they still lacked budgetary requests from several departments.

Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Kathy Reinig acknowledged financial information has been sent piecemeal to Finance Committee members due to staff vacancies at Town Hall over the past year. She said “The process will run smoother next year as we will have all our systems in place.”

But Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith argued there is much to improve on.

Smith has had difficulty scheduling meetings with Town Administrator Diana Schindler, who she said is “hard to deal with” as she doesn’t return phone calls and emails.

She added the piecemeal flow of information created problems in scheduling meetings with department heads, who must meet with Schindler first to develop their budgets.

While Smith said Schindler and Reinig resisted the idea of the committee meeting with department chairs, she argued “The Finance Committee needs to have a working relationship with department heads” to gain a better understanding of their budgetary needs.

Smith sees the Finance Committee as a vital watch dog of public funds, but said their power was undermined in the last two years when other town officials presented alternative budgets that were ultimately approved by confused voters.

“Those were not the cuts we wanted to make” she said of budget amendments presented by Reinig last year. Reinig contends the Finance Committee approved her amendments, albeit at the last minute. But Smith said the integrity of the committee process was derailed as “the budget we worked on for months was changed five minutes before town meeting.”

Smith said some officials blame committee members for keeping expenses in line. “They say, ‘oh, that nasty Finance Committee, doing this to those poor employees,’ but we don’t have enough money” to make payroll at requested levels.

Smith said many of this year’s budget requests have been “unbelievable … they are 200 percent above last year.” She said there are requests to hire “quite a few new personnel … but we have trouble paying the employees we have now.”

She added several department heads are making over $80,000. “I know they are making what other people in that field are making, but they need to consider the people who are paying those salaries” as the majority of Orange residents are low income.

Smith said the new streamlined budget presented by Schindler is a step backwards in terms of transparency. “It took us years to build a budget that had that level of detail … now she is lumping everything together.” She argued fewer line items make it harder for committee members and voters to discern how town money is being used.

But Reinig said Schindler is developing a budget that allows committee members to see all detail, but also condenses to the town meeting format.

She said the board’s recommendations that will be presented at their Wednesday meeting shows a budget that is much lower than initial requests made by department chairs. Reinig said she only resisted the committee meeting with department chairs prematurely before their budgets were vetted by Schindler, who “is doing a very difficult job at a difficult time … putting in a lot of hours … to get it all done ... I’m very satisfied with her performance.”

Schindler added, “I’m doing the best I can given limited resources and the extent of critical challenges to be addressed, and will continue to do so.”

Despite the hold-ups and changes in budget formatting, Smith said committee members are trying to work with numbers presented to them, and will make cuts as necessary to bring a balanced budget to the annual town meeting in June.

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