Orange seeks ways to contain costs, invest

Editor’s Note: Financial strains continue to challenge Orange’s leaders as they chart the town’s fiscal future.

Second of three stories

ORANGE — The town has taken some big steps in containing operational costs over the past few years, but officials are exploring new ways to keep the lid on expenses such as employee health insurance and salaries which are predicted to rise in the years ahead.

Keeping energy bills low is one of the first major cost containing measures taken by Orange.

The Siemens project, funded through USDA, is in the final stages of implementation, and will conserve energy through weatherization of town buildings and other projects. The savings will offset the project cost of $90,000 per year. The loan has a 20-year term.

Additionally, with Orange’s recent contract with Borego Solar Co., the town will save $45,000 each year through credits on the town’s electric bills.

Last year many communities were able to contain the rapid rise of insurance costs when the state law allowed cities and towns to switch health insurance plans without going through union negotiations. Orange took the opportunity to switch to GIC, the same health insurance coverage used by state workers.

With the larger pool of insurees, GIC offers substantial savings, which Schindler estimates to be over $200,000 each year.

But while the cost of health insurance premiums came down with the move to GIC, the town still pays 70 percent to 75 percent of the premiums for active and retired employees.

Linda Smith, who serves as chairwoman of both the Finance Committee and Human Resource Board, said that percentage is very generous in comparison to other small towns in the region.

“You don’t see anyone else paying 75 percent around the area,” she said. “A lot of employees are happy if they pay 50 percent” of health insurance premiums.

Smith added she also believes the town pays employee salaries that are disproportionately high compared to the average income of its residents. Smith said the residents can’t be expected to fund employee salaries that are frequently two to three times the town’s per capita income of about $20,000.

According to Smith, all department heads and financial team members make more than $40,000. She said police and fire department personnel make two, three and sometimes four times the average Orange income. “And we do have firemen and police officers that make over $100,000 a year with overtime included,” she said.

Selectman George Willard said, “There are some people who think that just because someone works in an office all day they should be paid as a clerk, but you have people in some of these jobs handling millions of dollars every day and you can’t pay them a clerk’s wage.”

Smith said she believes that one source of escalating costs is when new employees are hired into positions at higher salaries even when new employees have less experience than their predecessors.

“Salaries just go up and up and up,” she said.

Schindler said that while it’s important to pay people fairly to attract and maintain a professional staff, keeping the town’s operational costs down is also important, as there is very little money left over to fund capital and infrastructure improvements.

“We should be not just maintaining but repairing roads, dams, culverts, bridges … it’s a big component of what we should be doing but we’re not.”

Over the next year, Schindler will be collecting data about salaries and benefits in other communities to determine how positions in Orange stack up against those of comparable towns.

Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Reinig suggested the priority for future funding is shifting away from operational costs into capital improvement. “We’re not going to be giving a lot of positive (benefits) for employees, but putting money into funding technology so employees can get their work done and building maintenance so they have a safe, comfortable place to work.”

Tomorrow: Finding ways to save

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