Rochester’s Annual Town Meeting Monday decisively rescinded the town’s participation in the state’s Green Communities program and the town’s Stretch energy-efficiency-minded building codes that officials say are an overly expensive requirement of being a part of the Green Communities program.
When introducing town voters to Article 27, Select Board Chairman Woody Hartley explained the town received $500,000 of Green Communities grants to upgrade the energy efficiency of lighting at Town Hall and Rochester Memorial School when the town joined the program in 2018.
“But that was just the low-hanging fruit we were getting,” he said. “It’s gotten worse since then.”
Hartley said the current Stretch code will alter the cost of a homeowner’s simple renovation plan big time.
Planning Board members said that under Stretch code requirement, homeowners would have to install electric-car and solar-power circuitry for a simple, two-car garage renovation, and they added that current plans to rebuild public-safety facilities in town would also be much more expensive.
Planning Board member Ben Bailey noted this move started as a citizens’ petition article that he helped initiate, and he commended the Select Board and the town for agreeing to the idea to discontinue participation. He stated proudly that while Rochester is the first town in the commonwealth to reject Green Communities program participation, “since we started,” he said, “It’s catching on in other communities.”
One resident asked if it was too soon to take this step before seeing how efficient new municipal buildings could be in terms of saving energy and energy costs. Hartley said Green Communities experts were invited to Town Hall to explain the program benefits.
“They had no answers,” Hartley noted. “It’s complicated, they said. They don’t have their act together.”
Planning Board Chairman Arnold Johnson said that under the Stretch code, the proposed renovation of the police station and construction of a new fire station will require more expensive double-pane windows and electric-vehicle receptacles in the public-safety bays “even though there’s only one EV fire engine in the entire state.
“This town still has common sense,” Johnson said. “This program has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to get practical.”
Voters punctuated their motion to terminate Green Communities program status and the town’s Stretch code with a loud round of applause. Bailey would later motion to have the petition article on the matter “postponed indefinitely.”
It came near the end of a May 22 Annual Town Meeting held in the Rochester Memorial School cafetorium that attracted a record turnout of over 183 attendees that approved a $25,000,000 FY24 operating budget.
Before the ultimate approval of Article 4 (the FY24 Operating Budget), Select Board member Paul Ciaburri motioned that the Town Hall Account be raised from $548,521 to $553,000 to add a Selectmen/Town Administrator Executive Assistant position that the other two Select Board members had previously cut from the budget.
Hartley and Brad Morse had argued, as the warrant came up for their approval, that no one had discussed the plan for the new position with the Select Board in advance, and they wanted more time and needed more funding than budgeted to consider a new job that would be under the Select Board’s jurisdiction.
At the time, Ciaburri explained he feels that elevating the duties and compensation of the Board of Selectmen/Town Administrator’s Administrative Assistant to an Executive Assistant level was the right thing to do because of that person’s workload.
Voters defeated his amendment by a tally of 160 against and only 46 yes votes.
Later in the meeting, an article proposing that the town clerk be changed from an elected position to one appointed by the Select Board failed under a loud “No” vote. Prior to the vote, Hartley encouraged approval by noting the position of town clerk has become more complicated and more critical in recent years.
Town Clerk Paul Dawson is retiring from the position due to health reasons, he said, and there is only one candidate (Marjorie Barrows) on the May 24 election ballot.
Ciaburri swayed voters against the proposed change when he told them, “You kind of lose your say with this town position if it goes to being appointed by the Select Board.”
Town Counsel Jay Tallerman explained later that the question on the May 24 Election Ballot asking whether the town clerk should remain elected or become appointed will remain there, but its vote tally will not override Town Meeting’s vote.
Article 5, to set the spending limits on revolving-fund accounts, sparked a question from a resident: Why was $18,000 for the Country Fair still listed when the annual town event has been closed down? Finance Director Suzanne Szyndlar explained the town has just $18,000 in that account and including it in the spending-limit vote will allow the town to use that money, which is being planned for awarding scholarships.
Article 6 spent just $300 for recurring environmental and natural resources expenses, the planting of shellfish in Marion. Article 8 sent $300,000 to the Stabilization Fund. Article 13 spent $208,532 of Capital Planning funds on capital needs for the Fire, Park, Highway, Library departments and the Rochester Memorial School.
Article 14 began a new Matching Grants Fund with $100,000. Town Administrator Glenn Cannon explained the town will now have a fund to draw from when it receives a grant that requires a match of town funds.
Voters approved Article 15 authorizing $500,000 of indebtedness for Old Colony Regional Vocational-Technical High School’s feasibility study of possible renovation and/or construction of the Old Colony school facility after Superintendent Aaron Polansky explained that Rochester’s portion will be $100,000 with the total to be split among the region’s five member towns. The vote, he said, is to support incurring the debt.
A new Veterans Tax Work-Off Program was approved with Article 24, under which veteran “volunteers” will be able to provide their service to the town as a reduction to their tax bills. The maximum reduction of real property tax will be based on 125 service hours in a given tax year rather than $1,500 of tax debt.
Article 25 approved the assessors to enter into tax agreements with new solar photovoltaic facilities at Cushman Road, Featherbed Lane, Braley Hill Road and 523 Snipatuit Road. Article 28 rescinded the temporary moratorium on marijuana retail establishments, and Article 30 removed the Orderly Development provision of the zoning bylaw.
Rochester Annual Town Meeting
By Michael J. DeCicco