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Rochester Annual Town Meeting

Rochester Approves FY11 Budget with Modifications

Rochester Town Meeting

By Laura Pedulli

Rochester voters convened on May 17 at Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School to determine the fate of one special town meeting article and 14 articles on the annual town meeting warrant. After the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence for men and women serving in the armed services, Town Moderator Greenwood Hartley, III called the special town meeting to order at 7:00 pm. On stage to answer questions were town officials, including the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee.

Article 1 of the special town meeting asked the town to transfer $4,009 from available funds to increase the Council on Aging Director's salary. One resident praised the work of Director Sharon Lally: "She has made a great difference to us seniors. We've been around a long time and we deserve this," she said. The article passed unanimously.

Mr. Hartley then concluded the short special town meeting and formally opened the annual town meeting at 7:05 pm.

Article 1, which asked the Town to accept the annual report of all town officers and committees, passed unanimously.

Article 2, which asked town meeting members to fix the salaries of elected officials of the Town for FY 2011, passed unanimously.

In remarks on the budget, Town Administrator Rich LaCamera said that like last year, town officials undertook a "conservative approach, especially with the current state of the economy." He said that although Rochester is generally financially sound and stable compared to other communities, the town budget still was hit by reductions in state aid and reimbursements and overall slow growth. "Everybody is taking a hit in reductions and state aid and certainly that has impacted local budgets," he said.

Mr. LaCamera cited various state aid cuts, including the drop in circuit breaker reimbursement for schools from 72 percent to 42 percent. He also said that for the first time in 20 years, the Consumer Price Index dropped to .9 percent and the town received no SEMASS funds as it has in previous years. Moreover, federal stabilization funds dropped by $167,000, he said, further constraining the budget.

Despite these issues, Mr. LaCamera noted that Rochester did manage to maintain $1.4 million in stabilization funds and $551,000 in free cash. "Our local receipts are pretty much the same as last year." In summary, he said: "We believe that [town officials] have demonstrated prudence and restraint. We are submitting a balanced budget."

Then the meeting proceeded to Article 3, which asked the Town to allow modifications to the classification and compensation plan for Rochester non-union employees. The town voted in favor of the measure unanimously.

Article 4 detailed the Town of Rochester's FY11 Operating Budget, which totals $15,705,3000. The budget represents a 2.01 percent increase over FY10 levels. The major increases in the budget reflect higher expenses in health insurance, Plymouth county retirement, out-of-district special education, Bristol Aggie tuitions, and Old Rochester Regional Schools. Major cuts in the town budget include the replacement of a full-time planner with a part-time planner, and funding cuts in the highway department, forestry, police department, waste collection disposal, Old Colony Regional School and Rochester Memorial School.

The town approved the majority of the budget but reviewed a few line items for which residents either requested clarifications or amendments. In the first such amendment, Town Counsel Blair Bailey moved to amend the line item pertaining to election expenses from $5,140 to $2,479, which passed unanimously.

Then Dan McGaffey - a recently elected planning board member -- requested to amend the planning board budget. Specifically, he requested to increase monies earmarked for expenses from $4,550 to $20,550. He expressed concern that the recent elimination of the town planner and the imminent departure of board member Robert Cummings would leave a void in the board's technical expertise and feared that a developer -"God forbid a 40-B Developer" could arrive in Rochester "with a six-inch stack of paper" trying to push through their proposals and the town would be unequipped to handle them.

In response, Mr. LaCamera said, "We did not expect this. We don't think it is fair to bring [this up now]. We hope you join the finance committee and leave the budget standing as is."

Planning board member Mr. Cummings then spoke about the need to hire a part-time technical expert. "The planning board needs professional assistance to bring our land use plans to fruition. There are no folks on the planning board with technical experience aside from me and I'm out the door."

Moreover, Mr. Cummings stressed the importance that the town "get out in front of the curve" by putting land use plans in place prior to receiving new development proposals. "I think it is short sided [sic] not putting the money there to do it. [The amendment request] is still $10,000 under what we got last year," he said.

In response, Mr. LaCamera said, "We should hire a part-time planner who is an employee of the town. We would rather do that then spend $20,000 to hire an outside consultant who knows nothing about our town." He added, "That $20,550 would have to come from someone else's budget, and we don't think that's appropriate right now."

The town then defeated Mr. McGaffey's amendment request, 91-52. In another vote, the town unanimously approved raising the budget line item "Other Fixed Costs" from $1,385,349 to $1,389,107 to reflect changes in town employee benefit costs.

Article 5 asked the town to raise and appropriate and/or transfer from available funds a sufficient sum of money to fund recurring environmental and natural resources expenses. 2011 national resource expenses include $300 for the planting of shellfish in Marion. Voters approved the article unanimously.

Article 6, which asked town residents authorization to transfer $2,000 from free cash for the purpose of funding the New Bedford Women's Shelter, passed unanimously.

Article 7, which asked the Town to authorize revolving funds for several town departments, passed unanimously.

Article 8 asked town members to establish an Other Post-Employment Benefits Liability Trust Fund, into which the Town may appropriate funds to offset the anticipated cost of premium payments for or direct payments to be made to retired employees, and eligible spouses or dependents of deceased employees of the Town. The article passed unanimously.

Article 9, which asked the Town to appropriate $237,074 for the purposes of repair, construction, maintenance, and preservation of town roads and bridges which qualify under the State Aid Highway Guidelines adopted by the Massachusetts Highway Authority, passed unanimously.

Article 10, which asked the town to adopt new zoning by-laws regulating the use of landing strips for fixed-wing engine aircrafts, was formally tabled by petitioner Colman Lalli.

Article 11, an article filed by petitioner Tom Skrutski, asked the Town to abolish the Rochester Historical District Commission and the Historic District that the town adopted by vote during its 1999 annual meeting. Mr. Skrutski tabled the petition.

Article 12 asked the Town to authorize the Board of Selectmen to transfer a deed for an 8.84 acre parcel of land from the town of Rochester to the Rochester Conservation Commission. The parcel resides directly northeast of Rochester Memorial School and is designated as a habitat protection area for the Eastern Box Turtle. The land designation is necessary to offset new parking for Rochester Memorial School that will be built on protected land. The town voted in favor of the article unanimously.

Article 13 asked the Town to appropriate the sum of $300,000 - to be reimbursed through grants - for the purpose of purchasing the Carr Family Bogs property, a 35-acre piece of land. The town of Rochester would own and manage this land, which would be maintained for conservation purposes. The article passed unanimously.

Article 14 asked the Town to formally establish a town of Rochester Water Supply System and Water Department. The Board of Selectmen would appoint three individuals to serve on a new Board of Water Commission until Rochester residents elect new members at an upcoming municipal election. In a lengthy review of the topic, selectman Richard Nunes described the need for negotiating power between neighboring communities on water rights. "Water is a significant issue for residents, agriculture and business... We seek to establish a three-member board in order to protect Rochester's water interests."

In further comments, resident Fred Underhill expressed distress over New Bedford's control over a portion of Rochester water sources. "[New Bedford] has buildings in Rochester worth $24 million, but doesn't pay a dime to the town... When we approached [New Bedford] a few years ago about getting water committed to Rochester in the long run, [they said] we could pay like any community pays for water to reserve and not even use." He said in order to change a court decision upholding New Bedford's permit to use water in Rochester and other neighboring towns, "[Rochester] must be prepared to articulate more completely its usage of the great pond resources, making a convincing case of the modification of the permit." As such, he supported the article.

However, Selectman Bradley Morse stated that he felt the article is "too premature. We haven't done enough research yet."

Shortly thereafter, the Town approved Article 14 unanimously.

With no other articles on the warrant, the town voted to adjourn at 8:30 pm.