TM passes $21M budget, contingent on tax override

Staff Writer
Published: 6/18/2019 7:50:49 PM

ORANGE — Town officials’ recommended budget has been passed, but it won’t go into effect unless residents approve a Proposition 2½ tax override next month.

Orange’s Annual Town Meeting passed the recommended budget of $21,353,712.07 on its first night, Monday. This is a 6.2 percent increase over this year’s budget of $20,103,315.92. Last year, the budget increased by around 2 percent. The budget, as well as all Annual Town Meeting articles, is for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

The trouble is, even though voters have approved the budget, the town’s revenue is $513,971 short of fully funding it. This gap may be closed if a Proposition 2½ override vote passes July 29. Proposition 2½ is a state statute allowing towns to raise taxes more than normally allowed.

If the Proposition 2½ vote fails, the town cannot legally raise the extra half-million from taxes, and cuts will have to be made to balance the budget.

“The short story about why were recommending this override is, to use a tired old phrase, we’ve been kicking the can down the road for 10 or 15 years or more,” said Finance Committee Chairman Keith LaRiviere.

According to the Finance Committee, since the 2013 fiscal year, the town’s budget has increased approximately $605,000 per year on average, while revenue has only increased by $231,252. The increasing costs are driven by inflation, employee wage increases, insurance, new hires and, especially, increases in the cost of education. 

“The typical result of the budget process is we’ve been increasing the school budgets and pretty much relentlessly cutting the budgets of the rest of the departments in town, and if we’re going to keep the town functioning … we think we need to bite the bullet this year and raise another half-million dollars,” LaRiviere said. “That’s the short story.”

The majority of Orange’s budget — around 55 percent — goes toward education, its elementary schools alone taking up around 31 percent of the total budget. School funding accounted for the largest increases to the budget voted on Monday. 

Orange’s elementary schools were given the largest increase of any line item, $300,000. Even so, thast was only half of what the elementary schools originally asked for — around $600,000, a 9 percent increase. The Finance Committee chose to halve the requested increase at the advice of the Selectboard, after Selectboard members criticized the elementary schools for hiring 11 new staff in the middle of the school year with little explanation for the hires. The hires included classroom teachers, paraprofessionals and a guidance counselor. 

“Most of (the increase for the elementary schools) is the additional people that were hired in the middle of the school year to respond to the, by now, well-known situation that was happening in the elementary schools,” LaRiviere said. “That’s where the increase comes from, those additional people.”

During the school year, Fisher Hill Elementary School dealt with extensive problems with student behavior, with violent kindergartners and first-graders attacking classmates and wrecking classrooms, leading to frequent evacuations of entire classes in order to separate students from potentially dangerous peers. The former principal, Maureen Donelan, was placed on paid administrative leave for several months and then ultimately fired in March. School officials have not publicly connected Donelan’s firing to the problems with misbehavior. 

If the override vote passes, a property valued at $200,000 in Orange would pay a $4,790 tax bill instead of the $4,590 without the override. The current year’s tax rate is $22.39, which would be a $4,478 bill for a property valued at $200,000.

If the Proposition 2½ vote fails, the town will have to schedule a Special Town Meeting by Sept. 15 to balance the budget.

According to the Finance Committee, the budget will likely be decreased by $277,391, with $250,000 being taken from Free Cash to fund portions of the budget. An increase for the elementary schools would be $159,392. 

Orange Elementary School Committee member Alex Schwanz said at a Finance Committee meeting last week that if the override vote fails, the schools will have to cut “about four staff members,” up to five total. Classes would likely be consolidated, especially in the higher grades, leading to more students per class, Schwanz said — 25 students per class in the fourth through sixth grades as opposed to 22 or 23 currently.

Consolidation would be focused on the higher grades because “those students we can watch less,” Schwanz said. “When it comes to the lower grades, given the problems we had this year … we thought it was not appropriate to reduce teachers at that level.”

The cut positions would be teachers and one counselor that was part of the midyear hires. If the override passes, Schwanz said school officials believe the schools would keep all of their current staff but would still have to tap into other areas of the education budget such as school choice.

At the first night of the Annual Town Meeting, the Finance Committee attached a document to the budget stating the “passage of the override is critical to stabilizing the town’s finances,” and that, if it fails, budget stress will continue, “departmental maintenance and expenses lines will likely be reduced, further exacerbating our aging equipment woes, and negatively affecting service to residents.”

On a positive note, the Finance Committee expects ambulance receipts to increase due to the Fire Department now being fully staffed, solar farm taxes to come in the next two to three years, and state aid, which is “unpredictable,” to increase 1 to 2 percent each year. 

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Residents allowed the town to appropriate $15,981,000 to upgrade the Wastewater Treatment Facility. The facility was built in 1977 — but the typical life expectancy is 20 years, according to facility Chief Operator Ed Billiel. The upgrades will be paid entirely by sewer users and will not impact taxes. 

A Special Town Meeting held before the Annual Town Meeting approved several transfers from Free Cash, including $167,097.40 to cover the snow and ice removal deficit.

The town also voted to borrow $200,000 to fund an aeration blower replacement for the Wastewater Treatment Facility, which will be reimbursed with a state grant. Another $30,000 from the Sewer Enterprise Fund retained earnings will be transferred for the project, and $50,000 from the Water Enterprise Fund retained earnings and $65,000 from Water Department retained earnings for work on water storage tanks, an emergency backup power supply at Well 3 and engineering for the Terrace Street River Crossing project. 

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.




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