Orange voters wrap up three-night Annual Town Meeting, approve amended salary increases

  • Left to right, Orange Selectboard member Andrew Smith, Clerk Pat Lussier, member Richard Sheridan, Chair Jane Peirce and Vice Chair Tom Smith during the first night of a three-night Annual Town Meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday of last week.

  • Moderator Christopher Woodcock, who recently underwent foot surgery, during the first night of a three-night Annual Town Meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday of last week. To his left is Town Clerk Nancy Blackmer. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2022 3:58:23 PM
Modified: 6/24/2022 3:58:04 PM

ORANGE — An Annual Town Meeting that lasted nearly nine hours over three nights resulted in residents agreeing to amended salary increases for certain town jobs.

Voters worked their way through a seven-article Special Town Meeting and 12 articles on the Annual Town Meeting warrant before stalling regarding recommended increases for 14 top positions. The Orange Finance Committee and most Selectboard members believe hiking up the pay will more fairly compensate department heads for the work they do and incentivize them to think twice before accepting a job elsewhere for more money. But Selectboard member Richard Sheridan and several people in attendance in the Ruth B. Smith Auditorium at Orange Town Hall stated the community cannot afford the recommended increases in a time of record-breaking inflation.

The discussion began at the first portion of the 36-article Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, consumed the entire two hours and 45 minutes on Wednesday night and lasted another hour and 15 minutes of Thursday night’s portion, which spanned roughly 4½ hours. Moderator Christopher Woodcock ended the first two portions at roughly 9:45 p.m. and continued them to 7 p.m. the following day.

By the end of Thursday night, voters had agreed to raise and appropriate $24.9 million for expenses and transfer $618,670 from free cash. The budget includes $13.1 million for education. There was no public discussion on education spending, prompting Finance Committee member Kimberly Emond to mention the irony that the school budgets cause her and her fellow members the most stress.

The amended increases amount to $54,941, with the 14 salaries totaling $1,046,323. The original proposed increases would have amounted to $188,286. The two recommended increases not amended on the floor were for town accountant (going from $75,000 to $76,500) and building commissioner (from $64,260 to $80,000). Finance Committee Chair Keith LaRiviere explained Jeffrey Cooke was hired as commissioner in the fall on a promise of $80,000 annually and said that commitment should be honored.

The adopted increases are: town administrator, $2,145; town accountant, $1,500; collector, $928; town clerk, $1,072; community development director, $1,377; police chief, $2,060; fire chief, $2,161; building commissioner, $15,740; highway, parks and cemeteries superintendent, $9,764; sanitation superintendent, $1,098; airport manager, $12,816; health agent, $1,315; Council on Aging director, $852; library director, $2,113. All article voting was conducted electronically.

The debate over proposed increases was the reason the Annual Town Meeting lasted three nights. Emond mentioned the increases are technically not pay raises — as the figures apply to certain positions, rather than particular individuals.

“We have to keep our employees here,” she said.

Some Selectboard members said there is room in the budget for the increases.

Some town positions were described as revolving doors, with people accepting the jobs only to leave shortly thereafter for better pay. This results in a loss of productivity. Resident Michelle Zeman stood up Tuesday to advocate for the proposed increases.

“We’re not talking about Boston pay. We’re not talking about Worcester pay,” she said. “And I’m all new to this, but I know that I have lived in this town for 30-something years, and I want the police at my door and the ambulance at my door and somebody to help me if something happens. I’m staying. If people don’t like (the increases), they know where the door is.”

Department heads were asked in the fall to conduct wage surveys of their counterparts in 10 towns of similar population and budgetary means to Orange within a 50-mile radius and preferably within Franklin County. LaRiviere previously said Town Administrator Gabriele Voelker checked with the State Ethics Commission to confirm having the department heads conduct the surveys violated no conflict-of-interest law. On Tuesday, Laurie MacDonald, who chairs the Orange Human Resource Board, said the board recommends no salary increases “until we have an unbiased, professional wage study done.” She stressed she means no disrespect to any town employees or municipal board or committee members, who she said work hard and should be appreciated.

Danielle Wagner stood up to say she believes the wage study was biased and included towns and cities incomparable to Orange. Assistant Town Clerk Rachael Fortier then said the other municipalities in the wage study “have department heads with several other employees under them, people helping them.”

On Wednesday, Selectboard member Andrew Smith said salary increases will entice qualified employees to stick around. Resident and former Selectboard member Walter Herk reiterated a point he made the previous night, that the more an annual salary increases, the higher that employee’s pension will be after retirement. He said he is an electrician and has worked in houses for which taxes have increased $1,000 in a year.

“Don’t say, ‘It’s in the budget.’ Lower the budget,” Herk said. “When your taxes go up $1,000 in a year, that’s disgusting.”

Sheridan, who has sat on various municipal boards and committees over five decades, said employees deserve the salary increases but the town cannot afford them.

Randi Bjorlin, clerk for the Orange Board of Assessors, said the heated debate over salary increases exemplifies the point that town employees do not get the pay or respect they deserve. She said she is leaving June 30 for a job in Athol.

“Would you stay at a job where you’re called a liar?” she said to jeers from the crowd.

Resident Casey Bashaw acknowledged that town employees and people who work directly with the public handle a lot of abuse and a lack of appreciation, but said that comes with the territory. He said the only option is to treat people how you want to be treated. Julie Davis, who manages the Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op, agreed people need to be more respectful in general.

On Wednesday, Mercedes Clingerman, who chairs the Planning Board, advocated for salary increases and commended department heads for “sitting so graciously while the town picks them apart.”

Land easement

After the budget was adopted, Selectboard Chair Jane Peirce made a successful motion to move up an easement article in case Annual Town Meeting had to be continued to next week. The article pertains to acquiring a certain permanent easement by gift, deed, eminent domain or other means. She said immediate adoption was crucial so the Selectboard could act on the vote at its June 29 meeting and meet a state deadline. A $3 million revolving fund loan from the state hung in the balance. She said in an interview that the acquisition is vital to sewer and water main work that precedes critical North Main Street improvements.

The article states the land is situated at 26 Dexter St., now or formerly owned by Christopher Colo. But resident Peter Carter stood up and said he has lived at that address for about five years and that land belongs to a trust of which he is a trustee. He said he received no notification about the acquisition and said he learned about the warrant article on Facebook. He said he supports the project but is dismayed over how it was handled.

Sheridan and Selectboard Clerk Pat Lussier expressed sympathy for Carter’s situation and said there is no excuse for how this transpired. Peirce later said it was likely a clerical error. LaRiviere did his best to reassure Carter he will be compensated and the situation will be rectified.

“I think it’s safe to say you will be made whole. That’s what I think,” LaRiviere said.

Resident Ann Reed had previously made a successful motion to have the article state there will be reasonable compensation, though Town Counsel Donna MacNicol said that would happen either way.

Carter said he does not blame anyone, but is disheartened that he otherwise would have learned about the project when trucks arrived at his house. He said he does not want anyone else to experience this type of anguish, generating applause from the audience.

Special Town Meeting

At the preceding Special Town Meeting, voters rejected an article that would have appropriated $350,000 toward the purchase of a Water Department building and property better suited than the existing facility to requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act or to the Water Department’s operational needs. The article failed to get the two-thirds majority needed.

Voters then opted to transfer $50,000 from free cash for the moving expenses incurred by relocating the Town Offices from the Orange Armory to 62 Cheney St.

Dedications

The Annual Town Meeting report was dedicated to David Flint, who died in December. He was a member of the Athol Lions Club and was instrumental in coordinating the River Rat Race.

Before the meeting started, the Shirley Page Community Pride Award was given to Jeffrey Cole, the Witty’s Funeral Home owner known for his community service, and a moment of silence was held for Clifford Fournier, a former School Committee member who died on April 13.

Reach DomenicPoli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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