Lengthy Town Meeting warrants come at ‘critical moment’ for Orange

Orange Town Hall.

Orange Town Hall. Staff File Photo/Domenic Poli

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 5:00 PM

ORANGE — Residents are likely in store for a long night on Monday, as the Special and Annual Town Meetings to be held at Town Hall have a combined 75 articles on their warrants involving key decisions.

The warrant for the Special Town Meeting, scheduled to start in the Ruth B. Smith Auditorium at 7 p.m., consists of 45 articles, while the Annual Town Meeting immediately following it has 30.

“It’s long because it’s a critical moment for the town of Orange,” Town Administrator Matthew Fortier said of the first warrant.

The vast majority of articles pertain to the paving of North Main Street, following an underground water and wastewater upgrade that was completed last year. Most of those articles involve authorizing the acquisition of property easements to make the repaving possible. Fortier explained the Franklin Regional Transit Authority (FRTA) has earmarked $13 million for Orange for this project and a vote must be taken by the end of the federal fiscal year in September.

Fortier said the project will consist of tearing up and repaving the asphalt. This, he said, will allow for handicap accessibility to the nearby Fisher Hill Elementary School. It will also include the installation of new retaining walls, a new retention pond and a catch basin.

“It’s a federal project, so it’s held to a ... very high standard,” Fortier mentioned.

He added that $1 million to $2 million was spent on the design alone.

Annual Town Meeting

One of the final articles on the warrant asks voters if they agree to raise and appropriate $10,000 to hire a forensic auditor. It is unclear if this citizen’s petition article is related to the $338,000 paid in fraudulent invoices last summer, leading to the town being in dire financial straits.

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Fortier 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. Though the total was more than $800,000, the banks were able to stop some of those payments. The matter is being investigated by the Orange Police Department, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office and the FBI, which assigned an agent to the case.

In light of this situation, Fortier had initially proposed a fiscal year 2025 budget that included no funding for the Wheeler Memorial and Moore-Leland libraries. The third and newest proposed budget of $27.3 million includes $335,000 for the libraries. Fortier previously said this figure — down nearly $44,000 from what the libraries were allocated in the current fiscal year — was the result of a May 21 library trustees meeting that he attended, along with Selectboard Chair Tom Smith and Selectboard member Julie Davis. He also said this number is the lowest the libraries’ leadership believes it can work with.

Fortier would not disclose what the fraudulent invoices pertained to, but Article 28 asks voters if they agree to transfer $169,000 from free cash to offset half of the receivable created by payment of those invoices.

The proposed $27.3 million budget represents a 0.8% increase from the current fiscal year. Fortier said the suggested figures consist of “various cuts across all departments,” and this will likely invite a great deal of discussion at Annual Town Meeting. He said Community Development Director Walker Powell’s $62,000 salary was eliminated from the budget due to the recent restraints and adoption of Article 13 would restore that funding so that she can remain in the position.

Article 19 asks voters if they agree to appropriate $1.5 million to upgrade a failed influent pumping system at the Orange Wastewater Treatment Facility. At 21 years old, the pump was one of three on site designed to take in sewage from the facility’s collection system and distribute it throughout the rest of the wastewater system. It failed in March, forcing Wastewater Superintendent Oscar Rodriguez and his staff to manually operate the system and prevent sewage from entering the Millers River.

“We avoided an environmental issue by getting an emergency pump truck on site. Oscar and his team down there had to stay overnight for, like, two days, monitoring, pushing buttons, turning switches and keeping sewage out of the river,” Fortier told the Orange Selectboard at a meeting at the end of March. “They did a great job.”

Fortier mentioned the town has since been renting a bypass pumping system from Sunbelt Rentals, a Springfield company, for $15,000 per month. He explained monthly loan payments on a new system would likely be about $3,000 per month.

Article 27 pertains to raising and appropriating $750,000 for a water tower needed at the Orange Industrial Park. Seaman Paper, the town’s largest employer and part of the industrial park, is reportedly paying exorbitant insurance premiums due to insufficient water capacity. The engineering firm Weston & Sampson has reportedly designed a potable water storage/fire suppression tower for both the industrial park businesses and a section of town.

The Special Town Meeting warrant is available at tinyurl.com/Orange-STM. The Annual Town Meeting warrant is available at tinyurl.com/Orange-ATM2024.

In February, Steven Garrity was elected moderator with 121 write-in votes. There were no names on the ballot for the moderator position.

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