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Differences persist over spending priorities in Orange

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

ORANGE — As town officials try to make the most of reduced state aid and a stagnant tax base, some are questioning whether or not the town’s limited funding base can be spent more wisely.

Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Reinig says building maintenance and technology needs have suffered as a result of the town’s ongoing fiscal crises. “You can let go of those things for some time, but eventually they catch up with you.”

According to Town Administrator Diana Schindler, there is little or no money in the budget for badly needed technology upgrades.

Schindler said that in some cases the decisions made by the Finance Committee during budget season last year were “emotionally driven” rather than being based on “data and information about the needs of our departments.”

According to Schindler, both the library and the Armory have maintenance budgets disproportionate to those of other departments.

A group of residents and employees met with selectmen earlier this year and appealed to them to keep the Armory open, contrary to Schindler’s recommendation.

Schindler said the move wasn’t the best use of town resources. She said, “Every week, we are fixing huge problems spending $1,200 here, $2,000 there … sinking money into a building that is not making money for us … and we are subsidizing other businesses” such as Orange Armory Rollerskating that operates within the Armory with below-market rents.

By contrast, she said that in other departments, the maintenance budget is less than $2,000. Two buildings, Town Hall and the Police Station have ongoing issues with mold as a result of the lack of maintenance over the years.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Linda Smith was one of 20 people who showed up at the board meeting to advocate for the Armory.

She said that if the town closed the building and rented space for several programs now housed there, “at the end of the day you are no better off.” She said that fixing the long-neglected Armory will avoid a costly capital campaign.

According to Smith, Schindler “wants to build a new building in a few more years that would cost at least between $1 and $3 million dollars — where’s the town going to get that money?”

Schindler said relocating town programs to a rented space may be the best temporary solution. When the town does a formal engineering study, “we will most likely find out that the Armory will need just as much … $1 to $3 million dollars” to shore it up.

Schindler also said the library was funded “above what they need to keep their state certification when other departments are depleted.”

But Library Director Walt Owens said Schindler “is not respecting the wishes of the town,” as evidenced by an override vote in 2010 which funded the library at a level above current funding and the 2013 Town Meeting vote approving a budget that kept the armory open.

Owens maintains, “The library’s maintenance budget is not excessive … You can’t tell me that the $12,000 spent on the library’s maintenance is the key to solving the town’s problems.”

“The library finally has a half-way decent budget after … devastating cuts to us in previous years. In a time when everyone is struggling, the library is a public resource they can access to build themselves and their families up.”

Selectman George Willard said, “Speaking as a citizen, I can’t in good conscience say we shouldn’t fund the library — it’s such an essential part of our educational program; it’s an important place for kids to go after school. The school library has nowhere near the resources … and not everybody has a computer at home.”

Schindler said the Finance Committee also trimmed support staff positions she requested in several departments. “Funding these positions may not seem as glamorous as funding the library or Armory, but they are essential to efficient operations.”

According to Schindler, the lack of staff in various town departments puts more stress on other staff who struggle to complete work and respond to citizen needs.

Willard said, “Sometimes cuts are made to the point it hurts you more than the savings gained through the cuts.” Due to a lack of staff, some tasks aren’t getting done in the assessor’s office, which he said “is costing the town a lot of money.”

Schindler said she had trouble filling vacancies in the treasurer and account positions as candidates perceived there was insufficient staffing to take care of the backlog.

She said the fire station lacks support staff as well. “Our fire chief is also serving as our emergency management director and our ambulance director and has no support staff ... it’s a ridiculous situation.” Other departments with a dearth of administrative staff include the building and health departments.

Smith said she has heard repeatedly from Schindler that more support staff are needed, but added that “the town can’t afford all these support staff ... we need to hire qualified professional staff who can do their jobs.”

She added, “The Finance Committee hasn’t cut any positions, we haven’t funded the additional positions (Schindler) wanted. Since she came here she has wanted a new assistant in nearly every department.”

Tomorrow: Cut or invest your way to the future?

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