Growing Grand List Helps Town Hold the Line on Tax Rate
The Orange Board of Finance introduced an $80.2 million budget for 2023-24, a budget that will slightly lower the mill rate for a second year in a row, all while absorbing higher expenses by both the schools and the town. Due to increased revenues from a growing Grand List the mill rate, if approved, will drop from the current 32.71 to 32.31 next fiscal year.
That represents a 1.22% mill rate decrease, said Board of Finance Vice Chairman Jim Leahy at the budget hearing held April 20 at the High Plains cafeteria. If approved, a homeowner with an average home valued at $355,500 would see a decrease in their tax bill of about $100. The referendum for the Orange budget is scheduled for Wednesday, May 17, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Grand List in October 2022 showed a $16 million increase over the previous year for real estate alone. That represents a .9% increase. Apart from real estate, the town also taxes for Business Personal Property and motor vehicles. Business personal property, which includes things such as furniture, inventory, etc., went up by $33.4 million, or 16%, largely due to UI and its subsidiaries. Motor vehicle values went up by 7.12%, in part due to people purchasing new vehicles. In all, the town is seeing an increase of just under $1.4 million in revenue from the growth in the Grand List.
The town budget, if approved, is seeing a 5.5% expenditure increase, from $25.6 million this year to $27 million in 2023-24. A big portion of the increased expenditures for the town as well as the schools is due to negotiated salary increases. For the town, the overall increase was 3% for the fiscal year we are in and 2.75% for the proposed 2023-24 budget. However, because the new contracts were not settled when this year’s budget went into effect, the 2023-24 proposed budget reflects salaries increases for both years, explained town Finance Director John Cifarelli.
Other increases that were highlighted during the budget hearing:
- Data processing cost for assessor’s office ($48K) and the town clerk’s office ($15K);
- Utility increases, for example at town buildings $15K;
- Police salaries up $336K;
- Increased contribution to the Volunteer Fire Association - by $38,300 – out of a total of $264,500;
- Public works sees increases of $78K in salaries, $27K in electricity and $35K for water for fire hydrants; another large increase is seen for recycling, which increased by $170K. Vehicle repair and maintenance is up by $25K;
- Town property insurance up by 46K.
- Out of the Capital fund, the Board of Finance recommends to spend a total of $513,000 for the following projects:
- Computer accounting software;
- Communications tower at the police station;
- HVAC repair and upgrades at High Plains Community Center and Post Road Fire Station;
- For the Board of Education, it has $155,00 for building repairs and furniture replacement.
Roadwork is underway this spring. The amount allocated for this season is $1 million, according to the budget book published by the town finance department. On the list to be reclaimed are Wilson Road and Prudden Lane. The driveway at Wolf Park is shown on the list, but for now is “on hold,” according to Crew Chief Donald Foyer, since there is other work to be done first. He wasn’t sure whether the allocated money would cover the planned driveway extension at the park.
A simple overlay is planned for Kennedy Drive, Alpom Drive, Drummond Road, Fairlea Road, Lincoln Road, Rustic Lane, Hawthorne Lane and Petrose Circle. Roads to be milled include New England Lane, Highfield Drive, Overland Drive, Karen Drive, Argyle Road, Currier Drive and David Court.
The Highway Department also has a list of roads to be improved in the fall, but funding for those has not yet been allocated. That list includes milling and resurfacing of South Greenbrier and Burning Tree; and resurfacing of Cart Lane, Clearbrook Road, Longmeadow Drive, Hollyhock Lane, Bayberry Lane, Wildwood Drive, Ox Yoke Road, Fawn Drive and Douglas Drive.
Selectman Mitch Goldblatt during the Q&A portion of the budget hearing commented on the conditions of roads in Orange, and requested that the Board of Finance increase the amount for road maintenance by $500,000, which would bring it in line with average expenditures for road maintenance in the past. “We should not have to wait until the roads crumble,” he said, pointing out that a total reclaim costs a lot more than regular maintenance.
OBOE budget: Orange School Supt. Vince Scarpetti presented his board’s budget, which is looking for a 3.37% increase. Much like the town’s budget, the major drivers for this are salary increases, utilities, technology and curriculum software, also transportation and gasoline. The district had conversations with Police Chief Gagne about school security, Dr. Scarpetti said, and the Chief guided the board to hire security officers – often retired troopers or police officers who are allowed to carry a gun in the schools. Another increase is for building maintenance, due to the requirement to conduct an HVAC audit.
Amity budget: Dr. Jennifer Byars presented the Amity budget, which is looking for a 2.25% increase, about half of what most other districts are looking for. She started her presentation by pointing out academic successes, team athletic team successes, as well as highlights in the performing arts, such as the spring musical. She mentioned that Amity students had the highest math SAT scores in its reference group (DRG), and tied for second place in English, which made it one of the top scoring schools in the DRG.
The total budget increases by $1.2 million, from $53.3 million this fiscal year to $54.5 million proposed for 2023-24. The referendum for the Amity budget was scheduled for May 2 in the three member towns. Results of the referendum were not available before press time.
The budget supports:
- 1 Middle School math interventionist who will be shared between the two middle schools, supported by a paraeducator who will continue the work when the interventionist is at the other building;
- 0.6 Chinese teacher – due to student interest;
- 1.3 support staff (5 positions) for social-emotional support;
- 1 Special ed paraeducator reassigned from math intervention;
- 1 Special ed paraeducator;
- 0.7 special ed tutor at Middle School;
- 1 District in-school suspension tutor (grant funded) – currently there is no supervision for in-school suspension at the middle schools;
- 1 administrative assistant for maintaining special ed records;
- the district would reduce one English teacher position and restructure class offerings. Some classes may have more students than they do currently, but they will all still be within contractual limits, Byars said;
- Similarly, the district would reduce the position of a visual arts teacher at the high school.
Dr. Byars pointed out that the district’s efforts to educate special ed students within the local district is now paying off, with reduced special Ed costs in the 2023-24 budget. “It took multiple years to get the programs established,” she said.
Technology, which has become an integral part of instruction, will need maintenance and software updates to support the 1:1 environment; Instructional Display boards, which replaced the blackboards of old, will need to be replaced after 10 years or so; also, some labs need high quality software. Dr. Byars mentioned the work by some Amity students who helped restore photographs lost as a result of a Florida hurricane, work which requires special software, but also offers the students special experiences.
As for its technology program, “we anticipate upgrades, and are trying to set aside money to save for that,” Byars said.
Capital projects: She said per state statute the district is allowed to put 2% of leftover funds into a capital reserve account. Unlike the local school districts, the regional district is responsible for its building upkeep. Past surplus funds have been used to refurbish roof leaks at the high school, which may buy them another 20 years without having to bond for roof replacement. Currently Amity is working to renovate the lecture hall at the high school, which had not been renovated since 1996. Next on its list of projects is roof repairs at both middle schools, in particular over the gyms.
The Board of Education also authorized the long-delayed purchase of musical instruments (such as tubas and tympani).
Dr. Byars said the Amity Finance Committee and the Board of Education agreed to the budget “right out of the gate.” Due to fewer Orange students, the budget impact of the proposed budget to Orange is $264K less than this year.
Reactions: As opposed to last year, which brought out a number of critics of Amity initiatives, and ultimately led to a double defeat of the Amity budget, the speakers this year came out in support of the district, asking fellow townspeople to vote in favor of the Amity budget.
Selectman Mitch Goldblatt called out the critics of the Amity surplus for stating “alternative facts,” and pointed out that the town, too, had a surplus. “Unreasonable? I don’t think so,” he said. “It is time to stop the crusade against Amity,” he said. “For the sake of our town, our region, Stop!”
Similarly, Mary Welander said in her role as state representative she gets to see how a lot of school districts are struggling. “We should be so proud (of the local school system),” she said, adding that people want to move to BOWA towns because of the schools, and she finished by “imploring the residents to support the budget.”
Anna Mahon, former Amity high school principal and a resident of Orange, also asked for people’s support for the Amity budget, calling it an investment in our children’s education. “It makes no sense not to support a budget out of spite,” she said.
Chris Browe, a member of the Orange delegation to the Amity Board of Education, and the chairman of the Amity Finance Committee, also spoke in favor of the Amity budget. He pointed out how the town’s Board of Finance is looking to “do more with less,” and the school district is doing the same. By putting a portion of its surplus into a capital and non-recurring fund, the Amity district is actually saving the towns money, since that practice allows them to take care of the buildings and grounds without bonding, he said.
A newcomer to the Orange budget hearing, and a recent arrival in Orange, Ron Kaye, said he moved here two years ago, and found it to be a “wonderful town.”