The Orange Board of Finance officially presented its 2021-22 budget proposal at the annual budget hearing Wednesday, April 21, in the High Plains Community Center gym. The audience of some 25 or so, masked and sitting on chairs that were spaced out according to COVID prevention rules, included many who participate in town government. The meeting was broadcast on YouTube where, by the following day, it had received another 47 views.
As presented, the mill rate would increase from the current 32.74 to 33.25. The increase would cover a $76.1 million budget, up from this year’s $73.7 million, a 3.2% increase. As is typical, two thirds of it would support education, both the elementary schools ($22 million) and the Amity system ($25.2 million).
Tax impact: For an average property valued at $355,500, which would be assessed at $248,850, taxes would increase from $8,147 this year to $8,274, an increase of $127.
The town budget of $25.3 million represents a 4% increase over this year’s budget, due in large part to increases in insurance and other employee benefits. Employee benefits are expected to increase by $690,000, which represents about 70% of the total increase of town expenditures.
The majority of it is in pension costs, explained Board of Finance Chairman Kevin Houlihan, as well as an increase in health insurance and property insurance. “The most difficult challenges are the insurance costs for both people and property,” wrote First Selectman Jim Zeoli when asked about the budget increase.
The other budget driver on the town side are the bonding costs for the Racebrook Country Club, as they will kick in in the next fiscal year, bringing the debt payment to an increase of $536,175. “There is one and only one reason why the debt went up and went up big time,” said Board of Finance Vice Chairman Jim Leahy, “and that’s because the town decided to purchase the Racebrook property.” The employee benefits and the debt payment together make up well over three-quarters of the total 4.09% expenditure increase, Leahy pointed out.
Capital spending: The budget proposal also includes $1.4 million in capital expenditures, the biggest part of which is earmarked for road paving. In total, the highway department will be receiving $1.3 million to fix the roads. The funds will be taken from three sources, $600,000 from the Capital Reserve Fund; $600,000 from Town Road Aid, a state grant; and $100,000 is a line item in the department’s operating budget.
In addition to the $600,000 for paving, the Capital Reserve Fund will provide funding to replace heating pipes under the floors at High Plains Community Center. They are in very poor condition and must be replaced, Zeoli said.
The town is also putting $220,000 aside for revaluation of all properties, which is periodically required by state law. It is also paying for a new recording system for the Police Department; and for software improvements.
In addition, the Orange Board of Education is receiving $243,000 from the Capital reserve.
Audience input: Selectman Mitch Goldblatt stepped up to the podium, cautioning the town against the practice to put money from fund balance into the operating budget, especially a large amount such as the $700,000 in the proposed budget. It will put the town into a hole for the next budgeting cycle. Instead, Goldblatt suggested to use more of the fund-balance for one-time capital expenses, namely road repair. “The roads in this town in the neighborhoods are an embarrassment and deplorable,” he said, adding it is imperative keep up with the road paving for the sake of the community and the infrastructure. “We need to take action now,” he urged. If the town were to put $500,000 more toward road paving, it would still be left with a fund balance as high as 16% — “still a very, very healthy fund balance,” he said.
Even so he thanked all who worked on the budget , saying that he will support the budget and the Amity budget and urged everyone to do the same.
The Annual Town Meeting is scheduled for May 12; should the finance board vote to make any changes to its budget in the meantime, those changes will be presented at that time. The budget will then be adjourned to the budget referendum on May 20, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots are available at the Town Clerk’s office.
The Amity budget will be voted on separately with a referendum on Wednesday, May 5. Voting is taking place in the three member towns at the usual polling places. Absentee ballots are available at the town clerks’ offices.
The District Meeting on the proposed Amity budget will take place the day before the referendum, on Tuesday, May 4, at 5:30 p.m. at Amity Middle School – Orange campus.
By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent