Town Meeting almost didn’t make its 75-member quorum, and when it did, there were not enough town meeting members in favor to pass the citizen’s petition that would have transferred $50,000 from Rochester’s free cash for the purpose of reducing the tax rate.
Article 20, the final article on the warrant, was among three that were not approved in the annual Town Meeting held on June 22 at Rochester Memorial School.
Moments before the vote was taken that would pass Article 19, a $300,000 appropriation from free cash into the town’s Stabilization Fund, voting citizen Fred Underhill stepped forward to address the Board of Selectmen. Underhill essentially asked how much free cash had been spent so far during the meeting and if there was still at least $50,000 remaining to address Article 20 in the event that the voters approved it. Vice Chairman Brad Morse assured Underhill that there were sufficient funds remaining should Article 20 pass. Alas, it did not.
After Article 20 got its motion and its second from the floor, discussion was the next step before the vote, and Finance Committee Chairman Kris Stoltenberg summarized to the meeting how free cash comes about and what he considers the benefit of holding that money to support the town.
The percentage gained by homeowners would be five cents per $1,000, he told the meeting; if Article 20 passed, a house valued at $450,000 would save its owner $11 every six months on taxes.
“For $50,000, what’s the point? It’s like robbing a bank. Do you rob it for 50 (thousand dollars) or do you rob it for a million? Give us a million dollars back, that would make a dent on your taxes,” said Stoltenberg after the meeting. “Well I was going to use the analogy, ‘We could buy a pickup truck for the highway (department) or a dump truck for 50 grand. That 11 bucks wouldn’t even fill up half the tank on your car that you saved every six months.’”
With 35 years of experience managing his town’s finances, Stoltenberg readily acknowledged the ideological argument at hand (i.e. the significant segment of the voting population objecting to the government’s accumulation of the people’s money and not refunding what it doesn’t spend).
“We don’t spend money foolishly,” said Stoltenberg. “Honestly, I can tell you, if you go line by line, you saw me shoot down the Assessors.”
Article 10, the only other article among the 20 on the warrant that went to vote and lost, was a decision against appropriating $15,000 in funds for the Board of Assessors to address anticipated operational cost increases as it braces for the retirement of Chuck Shea, the lead assessor. This article was recommended by the Board of Selectmen but not by the Finance Committee.
This majority of hands deciding the fate of Article 10 was more convincing than the one that voted down Article 20.
While Stoltenberg said FinCom is supportive of the Assessors’ needs, he found the process to set a dangerous precedent.
“Why doesn’t (every board and committee) say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of doing something in the future’? So we can’t have all these little slush funds; the town needs to have a Stabilization Fund,” he said. “And, believe me, I have a lot of respect for the Assessors. You’ve got a smart town accountant and smart town assessing office. You screw those up and your town’s in big trouble.”
The largest amount of money appropriated from free cash was the $550,000 that voters approved in Article 4 to help meet the FY21 budget of $22,522,236.
Article 12 saw voters appropriate $99,500 in free cash to purchase a highway excavator. This was originally a Capital Improvement Fund project, but would have used up all the available funds that saw Article 11 appropriate $97,476 for technology and HVAC upgrades to Rochester Memorial School, basement waterproofing at Town Hall, a Message Board Trailer, a walk-in freezer/refrigerator at the Council on Aging, and gas furnace, A/C condenser and coil also at the COA.
The only other article on the warrant that was not passed was only tabled for the future. Article 14, the Walnut Plain Conservation Project, which would have required an appropriation of $345,769 for the purpose of designating that land as conservation and passive-recreation land, will presumably be revisited later this year.
Underhill made another significant contribution to the meeting, asking a follow-up question during discussion before voters approved Article 5, an appropriation of no more than $203,500 in revolving funds for the sake of several services. Underhill asked the Board of Selectmen what happened to the transfer station. In answer to the question, Morse updated attendees on the situation as it stands.
“At this point we don’t know. The refuse district hasn’t officially voted to disband at this point so, as far as we know, they’re still exploring options,” explained Morse. “There are other options for the town. Once they make that decision, we have a number of options on the table. Honestly, it’s still going to be operational; we’ve had conversations the Town of Marion… to take things there. However it shakes out, the residents will be covered and there will be a place to take the trash.”
Articles 7 and 8 approved, respectively, $15,000 to fund Rochester’s future obligations to Other Post-Employments Benefits (OPEB), and $6,300 to fund the GASB 75 Audit for OPEB.
Article 9 increased the elderly tax exemption from $750 to $1,000.
Articles 15 and 16 approved the acceptance of Forbes Road and Douglas Corner Road as public ways.
Article 17 authorized the Board of Selectmen to grant an easement over a parcel owned by the Town of Rochester along Ryder Road and Old Middleboro Road for the purpose of access to the solar array planned by Seaboard Solar Holdings LLC. A required two-thirds vote came in 58-6 in favor.
Article 18 authorized the Board of Selectmen to buy a portion of a parcel of land on Rounseville Road not to exceed $160,000. A required two-thirds vote came in 74-1 in favor.
Articles 2-3 address town-employee compensation. Article 2 voted to fix the salaries of elected officials, and Article 3 amended a personnel-related bylaw covering classification and compensation (wage plan) of appointed town employees based on a 2 percent increase effective July 1.
Article 1 accepted the annual town report from town officers and committees.
Article 6 voted to approve Recurring Environmental and Natural Resource Expenses in the amount of $300 for the planting of shellfish.
Article 13 moved the annual Town Election to the fourth Wednesday in May.
Rochester Town Meeting
By Mick Colageo