$338K fraud drains town coffers in Orange

Joanne Woodcock, a trustee of the Orange Public Libraries, speaks to the Orange Selectboard at the May 16 meeting in front of a packed meeting room inside Town Hall.

Joanne Woodcock, a trustee of the Orange Public Libraries, speaks to the Orange Selectboard at the May 16 meeting in front of a packed meeting room inside Town Hall. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Orange Selectboard members at their May 16 meeting.

Orange Selectboard members at their May 16 meeting. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

The Wheeler Memorial Library at 49 East Main St. in Orange. The town is in a dire financial situation and faces the potential closure of its libraries because of $338,000 paid in fraudulent invoices last year.

The Wheeler Memorial Library at 49 East Main St. in Orange. The town is in a dire financial situation and faces the potential closure of its libraries because of $338,000 paid in fraudulent invoices last year. STAFF FILE PHOTO

The possibility of having to close the Orange public libraries brought out so many people to the Orange Selectboard meeting on May 16 that some had to stay in the hallway.

The possibility of having to close the Orange public libraries brought out so many people to the Orange Selectboard meeting on May 16 that some had to stay in the hallway. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-17-2024 5:37 PM

Modified: 05-18-2024 4:35 PM


ORANGE — Authorities are investigating an estimated $338,000 in fraud against the town, which has left Orange in dire financial straits and could result in the closure of its libraries, town officials discussed Thursday.

The fraud involves the town paying fraudulent invoices last summer, which town officials learned about last fall, according to Town Administrator Matthew Fortier.

“We got hit for more than that. It was up over $800,000, total. But the banks were able to stop some of those payments,” he said after Thursday’s Selectboard meeting, where the fiscal year 2025 budget was discussed and people came out to advocate for funding the Wheeler Memorial and Moore-Leland libraries.

Fortier said he started in his position on Aug. 21, 2023, and he and other members of the town’s finance team discovered the problem in early September. The matter is being investigated by the Orange Police Department, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office and the FBI, which recently assigned an agent to the case.

“We think it’s some type of money-mule scheme or folks that are … sending out fake invoices just seeing if they can get hits,” Fortier said in an interview. “Unfortunately, some of the town processes didn’t catch it. And that’s something that I had to fix after I took over, and increase checks and balances, change certain protocols.

“We’re not going to rest on this until we can bring people to justice,” he added. “It’s not fair to the small town of Orange.”

During the meeting, Police Chief James Sullivan said the FBI agent assigned to the case has offered all his resources to help Orange.

“The stuff that this gentleman can do on his laptop, as far as chasing money down, is staggering,” Sullivan told Selectboard members. “I’m encouraged. We know where a bunch of the money’s gone. We know where it is, or where it was, and he’s going to be working on chasing it down and he’s going to be working on helping us build a case.

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“I don’t know if and when we’re going to get the money back. I have no idea,” Sullivan continued. “It’s far too early to tell. Where the money’s been put, it’s very difficult to gauge how much is in there and our ability to grab it.”

Fortier recommended offsetting the $338,000 loss with free cash or dealing with it next year — an idea Selectboard members rejected. The budget he has proposed also suggests not funding the libraries, though he stressed it pains him to do that. Selectboard members also said they have no desire to see the libraries close.

Adopting the budget as proposed at Annual Town Meeting on June 17 would result in the libraries closing on June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The Selectboard, unsatisfied with the amounts of cuts the Orange Elementary and Ralph C. Mahar Regional school committees are willing to make to accommodate the budget crisis, voted unanimously to ask them to take another look and trim any costs possible. Both committees are scheduled to meet on Monday — Orange Elementary in the Fisher Hill School’s media center at 5:30 p.m. and Ralph C. Mahar at 7 p.m. in the Mahar library. According to the town’s website, the Orange Finance Committee is slated to meet at 6:30 p.m. on Monday.

Departments face pinch

The fraud also has resulted in desperate attempts to tighten the purse strings of various town departments.

Sullivan said meeting the recommended $1.4 million budget cap for his department would mean laying off two officers, a move he said would carry severe ramifications. He said those officers, who he did not name, will be difficult to replace in the future because they are highly skilled and trained in specialized fields. He said they will get “scooped up” by other departments and never return to Orange.

The chief also said his department will likely get a reputation for laying off officers, making it more difficult to recruit new ones. He mentioned it would take the better part of a year to train a new officer if the money reenters the town budget a year from now.

Sullivan warned that the cap will likely mean he will need to eliminate his department’s third shift, which spans from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“The workload is going to be intense, just for my command staff,” the chief said. “As it is, I have a sergeant that comes in on his own time an awful lot to do reports and stuff.”

The Orange Fire Department’s recommended budget cap is $1.5 million. This figure is down from the $1.65 million that Chief James Young said he was presented with earlier in the week. He told Selectboard members that the latter numbers were devastating enough.

“That’s over $100,000 in cuts to the Fire Department,” he said, adding that the newer figures mean his department “will not be able to do what you ask us to do any longer.”

Young said the Selectboard tasked him and his department several years ago with regularly running two ambulances to bring the town additional revenue. He said this is mathematically impossible with fewer than four people on a shift, because two people are required to staff an ambulance. He also said Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations prohibit personnel from entering a burning structure with fewer than four firefighters — two inside and two outside to rescue their comrades if they get injured. But meeting the suggested cap means laying off three people, resulting in three employees per shift.

“There’s no other way that I can make it work,” Young said.

He told the Selectboard that union members are considering not taking cost-of-living adjustments or clothing allowance increases this year to save money. Young also said he will not take the pay increase he is due.

The overall budget Fortier proposes is $26.7 million, compared to $26.9 million for the current fiscal year.

Libraries ‘a very special place’

During the portion of Thursday’s meeting designated for open time for the public, community members addressed the Selectboard to advocate for keeping the libraries open. Twenty-two residents sat in the Town Hall meeting room, and more filled the adjacent hallway.

Jason Sullivan-Flynn, who was promoted from children’s librarian to Wheeler Memorial Library director on May 4, was the first to speak.

“The Orange Public Libraries are a very special place,” he began.

Sullivan-Flynn said that young families use libraries to learn and socialize, and job hunters use the computers to work on their résumés and apply for positions. He also said people of all ages enjoy borrowing books, movies, video games and other items. At a previous Selectboard meeting, Sullivan-Flynn mentioned the popularity of library storytimes, the LEGO Club, various book clubs, the knitting and crocheting club, and summer reading and endangered species programs. He also talked about the annual Robert P. Collén Poetry Contest and said the libraries provide books to homeschooled children.

Sullivan-Flynn noted that the lack of a library would result in the town not meeting the state’s municipal appropriation requirement. This means Orange residents would not be allowed to check out materials in any other library in Massachusetts because public libraries are supposed to be part of a reciprocal relationship.

According to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ website, the only towns without a public library are Monroe in Franklin County and Alford, New Ashford and Savoy in Berkshire County.

The Moore-Leland Library sits at 172 Athol Road in Orange and is closed four days per week. The Wheeler Memorial Library at 49 East Main St. receives far more traffic.

Nancy Washburn said she has lived in Orange for more than 40 years and loves the libraries, which she mentioned contribute to building a community. She added that increasing the tax base would greatly help Orange’s economy, but families and businesses will be less likely to move to a town with no library.

Selectboard Chair Tom Smith chimed in briefly to say he and his colleagues are as frustrated as the community members.

“Unfortunately, we have ‘X’ amount of dollars to expend and I really hope tonight we can work out a plan to try to do something fair for the library,” he said.

Denise Andrews, who once represented Orange in the state Legislature, spoke by Zoom to say the town is “in an egregious situation and the buck stops with management,” which she elaborated is the Selectboard and the Finance Committee.

“We have been let down as citizens and taxpayers,” she said.

Mike Magee later came forward to encourage his fellow residents to attend Annual Town Meeting to fight for library funding. Mike Valeri suggested making some cuts to the Orange Municipal Airport, which he described as a “wealthy, rich kind of place.” He said most Orange residents cannot afford a private airplane and do not use or visit the airport.

“It seems like a luxury we can’t afford,” he said before asking if it can be sold.

Fortier said the airport costs about $100,000 once rental fees are factored in, and there are plans to offset all costs by 2026.

Shortly before the meeting adjourned, Smith said saving the libraries will likely mean having to cut hours and staffing.

Fortier, who lives in Orange, said he and his family use the Wheeler Memorial Library and he does not want it to close anymore than anyone else, but the town is in financial trouble.

“The town is down to the bone,” he said. “And I believe we’re chewing on the bone.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.