Muni Matters: ‘Common and Notorious Thief’ | Court Rules Against Waltham

Former Accountant Sentenced for Stealing from Four Towns

A one-time municipal accountant was sentenced May 31 to a three-year bid in the Worcester County House of Correction for having stolen nearly $1 million from four small towns he worked for, the attorney general’s office announced. Justin Cole, 40, was employed as Uxbridge’s town accountant and stole $855,474 from the Worcester County town between 2012 and 2017 by submitting and approving dozens of false invoices that resulted in the town paying for services it did not receive. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said Cole used his company, Bay State Municipal Accounting Group (BMAG), to fraudulently obtain rent, software and equipment payments from the town of Uxbridge. Upon stepping down as Uxbridge’s full-time town accountant in July 2017, Cole continued to defraud other municipalities through his BMAG business, which provided accounting and financial services to the towns of Monterey, Millville and Wenham. Healey’s office said Cole made off with a total of $931,149 — $855,474 from Uxbridge, $24,597 from Monterey, $47,600 from Millville and $3,478 from Wenham.

“This defendant abused his position of trust to steal taxpayer dollars from Massachusetts towns for his own benefit. We are pleased to deliver justice on behalf of these towns,” Healey said. Cole was declared a “common and notorious thief” and handed down his sentence after having pleaded guilty on May 25 to six counts of larceny over $250, two counts of larceny over $1,200, five counts of making false claims, four counts of securing an unwarranted privilege and one count of unlawful financial interest of a municipal employee. The Office of the Inspector General had referred the case to the attorney general’s office. “Towns across Massachusetts hired Justin Cole to manage and safeguard their finances,” Inspector General Glenn Cunha said. “Instead, he used his position to embezzle from them. My Office is pleased to have partnered with the Attorney General to bring him to justice.” – Colin A. Young/SHNS

SJC Rules There Are Limits to Municipal Solar Restrictions

Waltham’s restrictions on large-scale solar power systems are “impermissible” and the city cannot block a solar project in Lexington from building an access road that crosses into Waltham, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday in a case watched closely by cities and towns across Massachusetts. The backers of a one-megawatt solar facility planned in Lexington want to have an access road on their property in Waltham. But the city’s building inspector determined that using it to facilitate the solar project would conflict with the local zoning code, which limits large-scale energy facilities to industrial zones. The issue went to court and a Land Court judge had ruled that Waltham’s restriction “runs afoul” of state law. The SJC agreed and affirmed that decision Thursday.

“Like all municipalities, Waltham maintains the discretion to reasonably restrict the magnitude and placement of solar energy systems. An outright ban of large-scale solar energy systems in all but one to two percent of a municipality’s land area, however, restricts rather than promotes the legislative goal of promoting solar energy,” Justice David Lowy wrote for the court. “In the absence of a reasonable basis grounded in public health, safety, or welfare, such a prohibition is impermissible under the provision.” The case, heard by the court, in March highlighted the tension between the state’s aim of expanding renewable energy resources to become net-zero by 2050 and the longstanding tradition of local control in Massachusetts towns. It showed that not all municipalities are on the same page when it comes to the best way to facilitate the switch to renewables, whether large ground-mounted solar fields are worth their environmental consequences and how municipalities can wield their local zoning regulations in relation to clean energy development. Dan Winslow, the former state judge, administration official and state representative who now leads the New England Legal Foundation, said the SJC’s decision is a win for “free enterprise, property rights and solar energy development.” – Colin A. Young/SHNS

Fiber Grants Flow to Munis, School Districts

Eighty-six municipalities and school districts stand to benefit from a combined $13 million in grants for municipal fiber networks. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced the grants Thursday in Taunton, which is receiving $190,000 to extend its existing fiber network and bolster the city’s water distribution network against cyber and environmental threats. “Given the rapidly changing landscape of information technology and the infrastructure required to support it, these inaugural municipal fiber grants will make a significant impact on local communities and governments in better serving their residents,” Polito said.

Grant recipients are required to contribute a 5 percent local match. Baker administration officials said the money will help cities, towns and school districts make upgrades, strengthen their municipal networks, and more efficiently manage IT infrastructure. Acushnet, Dalton, Dighton, Dover, Easthampton, Groveland, Hamilton, Kingston, Lexington, Mattapoisett, Middleborough, Newbury, Norfolk, Northbridge, Oak Bluffs, Pepperell, Rowley, Spencer, Wareham, Watertown and Westport were all awarded funds toward the creation of new municipal networks. Some of the money serves multiple communities, including a $400,000 grant to create a redundant municipal fiber network for Colrain, Charlemont, Heath, Leyden and Rowe. The $300,000 awarded to Danvers will support installation of high-speed fiber connections connecting seven Essex County municipalities — Danvers, Essex, Hamiton, Wenham, Middleton, Topsfield and Manchester-By-The-Sea — to the North Shore Regional 911 Center in Middleton. – Katie Lannan/SHNS

At-Home Tests Available Free of Charge to Municipalities

Massachusetts municipalities interested in obtaining at-home rapid antigen COVID-19 tests with no restrictions on their use will soon be able to get them free of charge from the Baker administration, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced Tuesday. The state sent local boards of health a short survey Tuesday inquiring about their interest in at-home COVID tests, KN95 masks and surgical masks. The survey must be returned by June 10 and Polito said interested towns will get an amount of tests proportional to their populations. Polito announced the availability of the antigen tests in an email circulated Tuesday by the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services. The email did not say how many tests are up for grabs or when towns that request the tests could expect to receive them. At the start of June, Massachusetts is averaging about 1,450 new COVID-19 cases each day more than two years into the pandemic. But that figure, reported by the Department of Public Health based on reports from health care providers, does not capture positive cases among people who test themselves at home and then do not confirm their diagnosis with a molecular test. – Colin A. Young/SHNS

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