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Orange, residents, officials want one budget to vote on

ORANGE — The idea of voters pondering two distinct sets of budget numbers for the third annual town meeting in a row has raised the hackles of some residents and officials this past week.

“If the Finance Committee puts out more than one budget, we’re going to get lynched … there will be a hanging in the square,” Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith said this week. “People are tired of (officials presenting) two budgets.”

She said the Finance Committee agreed to present one budget at town meeting next Monday.

Smith said for two years running, voters received two budgets as they walked into town meeting, one presented by the Finance Committee, and an alternative version. Last year, Selectman Kathy Reinig presented an alternative budget and in 2011, former Town Administrator Rick Kwiatkowski did the same.

According to Smith, the presentation of multiple budgets confuses voters, derails town meeting, and gives the impression there is little unity among officials. The Town Governance Study Committee report drew similar conclusions and recommended a single budget be presented at town meeting.

But selectmen’s Chairwoman Reinig said she and Town Administrator Diana Schindler are advocating for the inclusion of an additional column on the Finance Committee budget reflecting recommendations by Schindler.

“This is not a second budget,” she emphasized.

Schindler’s budget, which is also balanced, is now $110,000 higher than the Finance Committee one.

Reinig said the additional column is critical so voters know the town administrator recommends higher funding for departments to operate effectively.

“There needs to be some way for the public to know so they can ask questions … and make decisions to either put more money in some line items or understand why services are cut.”

According to Reinig, the Finance Committee budget has more conservative estimates of local revenues because they are “looking at the ones that are coming in short not the ones that are coming in long ... but we’re coming in on target for local receipts overall,” Reinig said.

According to Reinig, Schindler estimates revenues for next year are roughly equal to this year’s estimates. “This is conservative,” she said.

But Smith said this year’s revenue is $200,000 lower than estimates. And she holds little hope the town will glean much of those receipts which are in collection and over 120 days past due.

According to Smith, Finance Committee revenue figures are based on the assessors’ projections for new growth and on collection agency estimates for this year’s ambulance revenues.

“You can only spend what you have and spending more than that doesn’t cover your budget,” she said.

But Reinig said Schindler has worked closely with state officials in preparing the projections. “They are keeping a close eye on us … they won’t allow us to put in (revenue) numbers that are not realistic.”

The town’s fiscal crisis and excessive debt burden has threatened the stability of local funds in recent years. The state now gives Orange no wiggle room in developing a balanced budget that must be approved at the spring town meeting.

Reinig added that it’s important to project revenue accurately as, “We only have access to the revenue we declare up front.”

If projections fall short of actual revenue, “we wouldn’t have access to it for the entirety of another year.”

Smith said the Finance Committee “has worked diligently to prepare accurate revenue figures.”

In recent years, she added the town held special town meetings in the fall to make budget cuts when revenues fell short of target.

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid. Just because it’s what you want doesn’t mean it’s reality,” she said in apparent reference to Schindler’s revenue estimates.

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