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Will Orange DPW hurt town’s water system?

ORANGE — Voters approved taking the first step in creating a Department of Public Works this week. But while the initiative may create efficiencies across many town departments, water department officials worry it may not be a boon for the water system.

In the four years that Superintendent Mike Heidorn has managed the town’s water system, operations in the Myrtle Street office have hummed along.

The department has run so efficiently commissioners were able to invest in important upgrades to wells at the system’s three pump stations. Orange residents have enjoyed some of the best public water in the state as a result.

Meanwhile, their town has been on a very different financial trajectory.

While state aid decreased and costs rose steadily, officials struggled to pay school assessments and other bills. Streetlights were turned off, and departmental budgets were slashed, diminishing town and school services.

The DPW vote at Tuesday’s town meeting will allow officials to request the Legislature to dissolve the independent commissions managing the water, cemetery and sewer departments and consolidate these departments with the highway, parks departments and transfer station, which are supervised by Town Administrator Diana Schindler.

Schindler said the creation of a public works department is a best practice in town government, creating optimum efficiency with shared equipment and staff.

But Heidorn urged voters to consider the impact on their water system. He said the change would bring in three additional layers of management. As it stands now, the commission can “act pretty quickly and respond to needs.”

Water Commissioner Donald Barnes and Water System Operator Richard Mathews urged voters to slow down. The DPW initiative “seems to be moving really fast…we jumped in too quick on (turning off) streetlights and that cost us money,” said Mathews.

Heidorn explained after the meeting the water department is uniquely buffeted from the funding and political storms rocking Orange in recent years. It is the only department operating independent of town management and taxpayer dollars.

While the sewer department is also an enterprise fund, the selectmen serve as its commissioners. And while the cemetery department has an independent commission, it runs largely on taxpayer dollars.

“I’m concerned about the potential for surplus funds being siphoned away from the water department in the guise of sharing,” Heidorn told voters. If the DPW needs a truck, officials may access water surplus, he said.

Without the commission, the water department will no longer be protected from funding cuts that enervated other town departments, he said.

“Your water system has significant needs. If we ignore those needs, you will have a water system that is falling apart like some of the other infrastructure in town,” he cautioned voters.

Reflecting on the decision, he said, “I just hate to see something that’s working well weakened … it seems like it will be a shame.”

Though it may take a year or more for the legislation to be approved, Schindler is moving forward with informal consolidation of cemetery, parks and transfer station functions.

The approved budget for next fiscal year funds a manager and part-time “floating” employee to serve those departments. According to Schindler, consolidation will initiate a team approach, encouraging collaboration and increasing productivity and employee morale.

Heidorn said he supports the consolidation of those services and a more casual sharing of equipment and staff between town departments.

“I’m totally into collaborating. I’m really trying hard to be part of the solution, but this article came into being one and a half weeks ago. And the water commissioners weren’t asked for their opinion,” he said.

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