Members of the Rochester Board of Selectmen on February 16 expressed disappointment and frustration over the commonwealth’s dissemination of seemingly constantly changing COVID-19 information and the lack of vaccine availability to municipalities.
Selectboard Chairman Paul Ciaburri said the Emergency Management’s COVID-19 team has had to return to a weekly meeting schedule because, he said, “Things change on a daily basis — sometimes twice a day. It’s maddening, and it’s so hard to plan anything with this.”
Town Administrator Suzanne Szyndlar added that vaccine access for municipalities has become more restricted, prompting Ciaburri to refer to the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson’s hopefully soon-to-be-approved vaccine that would be more widely available because it does not require the ultra-cold conditions other brands of COVID-19 vaccine require during transport and storage.
“Hopefully, we could possibly get our allotment,” said Ciaburri. “If that’s the case, then we would probably wind up doing it (in Rochester) like a flu-vaccine clinic, depending on how many doses we get at one time.”
Ciaburri lamented the many weeks the town spent devising a COVID-19 vaccine-distribution plan, even carrying out dry runs on how fast workers could inoculate vaccine recipients using a drive-through method.
“We were ready, but everything just [fell through],” said Ciaburri.
Selectman Greenwood “Woody” Hartley said the Council on Aging already realized that Rochester seniors would not be receiving their COVID-19 vaccine in Rochester any time soon. He said the COA had received over a hundred calls from seniors looking for information on when and how they might get vaccinated.
“When it became clear over the weekend … that we had actually missed the window … and now it was too late because there were no more vaccines,” Hartley said, those working at the COA started to plan for how they could get their seniors aged 75 and up vaccinated as soon as possible.
Hartley said the COA would begin calling eligible seniors to ask them if they would be willing to travel to Gillette Stadium, one of the commonwealth’s mass-vaccination sites. If so, the Rochester COA would provide the transportation and help set up their vaccine appointment.
“And we will get as many of them that want to get inoculated as fast as we can,” Hartley said. “We have one going tomorrow.”
Ciaburri is relying on that Johnson & Johnson vaccine, saying that once Rochester gets an allotment, “We will be giving that out. We will be doing it.”
“That’s fine,” said Hartley, adding that it likely won’t be approved for some time, and then it takes weeks to get it to their intended destinations.
Ciaburri said he recalled that the state had promised to get vaccines out to places like Rochester, which then responded by preparing to efficiently handle the vaccinations.
“We did all this work, and they basically told us no, which is discouraging,” said Ciaburri.
In other business, SEMASS’s PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) disbursements to the town have recently decreased significantly in size, with its most recent payment for January 2021, $262,943, about $95,000 less than the January 2020 payment.
Szyndlar reported that a major plant outage in January is to blame for the PILOT decrease, adding, “But the trend overall in our receipts for [Fiscal Year 2021] have been lower.” One reason, Szyndlar said, was the drought condition last year that she said “makes trash weigh less,” affecting profits. Also, a recent major construction project at the Cranberry Highway waste-to-energy plant impacted production at the plant from having to shut down operations during that timeframe. When she compared FY20 to this point in FY21, Szyndlar said Rochester so far has seen $319,000 less in PILOT revenue from SEMASS.
“It’s a considerable amount of money,” Szyndlar said, adding that the decrease will affect the town’s free cash account.
Selectman Brad Morse said that back in January he spoke with representatives from SEMASS, and they are well aware of Rochester’s concerns. Still, another operations shutdown is scheduled for March, said Morse, to install upgrades that will help the plant run more efficiently.
“But we do have an open dialog,” Morse reassured.
In other money-related matters, Szyndlar reported that she had received a notice from Bristol County Agricultural High School informing the town that Rochester and other non-resident towns would soon be issued a debt assessment in addition to their annual non-resident tuition for their students.
According to Szyndlar, Bristol Aggie is imposing a per-student debt assessment cost of anywhere between $5,200-$6,000 to fund a significant project at the school. Rochester currently has 13 students that attend Bristol Aggie, which Szyndlar said means an additional budget strain of $68,000-$78,000.
Szyndlar said she met with Bristol Aggie representatives to ask why non-resident communities must be “on the hook,” given that the school is in another county “and we are not a member town.” This added cost will create a severe impact on Rochester’s budget “for many years to come,” Szyndlar said, for the entire life of the loan, she told the board. She suggested the town seek assistance from State Representative Bill Straus, who Morse commented once helped Rochester deal with transportation funding issues regarding Bristol Aggie.
Szyndlar also plans to reach out to other non-resident towns with students at Bristol Aggie for their input.
“This could be very detrimental,” said Ciaburri.
Also during the meeting, the board adopted a Town Hall key-card policy for the use of a set of new electronic key fobs to enter and exit the building. Szyndlar said the policy would help keep track of who is in possession of the relatively costly key fobs, should they be lost or stolen and need deactivating and replacing.
The board also adopted an updated surplus-property policy to include instructions on how department heads should report surplus property to the chief procurement officer, Szyndlar, via a new sign-off sheet.
Hartley reported that Rochester did not receive the grant it was counting on to construct a patio at the Senior Center, but suggested he would work with others to apply for a SRPEDD grant that could potentially provide funding for an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible walking path around the center of town.
The next meeting of the Rochester Board of Selectmen will be held on Monday, March 1, at 6:00 pm.
Rochester Board of Selectmen
By Jean Perry