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COG accepts plan to expand transit, water-supply roles

By Jeffrey A. Johnson

Publication: The Day

Published January 19. 2012 4:00AM   Updated January 19. 2012 6:52PM
Proposal to boost regional council's authority raises questions for some

Norwich - The region's council of governments voted Wednesday to accept two legislative proposals that would give the agency greater authority over transit and water supplies in southeastern Connecticut.

The provisions, which would put the council in charge of approving the annual Southeast Area Transit budget and give it the responsibilities of the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority Representative Advisory Board, met with some resistance from officials from both SEAT and the water authority.

Legislation scheduled to go before the state's General Assembly would put the changes in place. Chief elected or appointed officials from 20 towns make up the council - formally known as the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. The council's mission is to work cooperatively on regional projects.

Several COG members said Wednesday the proposals were designed to strengthen council and town involvement in SEAT and the water authority, both of which would be improved.

SEAT provides transit services to nine towns in the region and the water authority supplies water to about 10,000 people in parts of Ledyard, Montville, North Stonington and Stonington.

Paul Altman, the chairman of SEAT's board of directors, said he was notified of the proposed changes Tuesday and since then has been unable to confer with his board.

The proposed legislation would give COG power over SEAT by adding three members to the transit district's board. COG also would have the authority to approve the appointment of the SEAT general manger, would ratify any contract in excess of $100,000 and would select a certified public accountant to conduct an annual audit, according to the proposal.

"Rather than trying to shove it down our throats, they should have let us respond to it," said Altman, who would not comment specifically on the plan before bringing it to the board. "This was a surprise. It was unfortunate."

SEAT General Manager Ella Bowman also said Wednesday that she was notified of the proposed changes on Tuesday, at a meeting of the COG executive committee to which she was called on short notice. She asked the council Wednesday to delay a vote so that SEAT's board of directors could review the proposed changes. The council declined to do so by voting on the proposals.

In the case of water authority, the council would have the power to approve the appointment of the chief executive officer and any contract for professional services in excess of $100,000. It also would review the authority's financial condition on a quarterly basis.

James Fogarty, the chairman of the water authority board, expressed concerns with the proposal at the meeting Wednesday. He said he was concerned that the proposed changes would affect the bonding power of the water authority and would allow the council to set usage rates for its customers. But Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon, a member of COG's executive committee, said both would remain intact.

Congdon said the water authority advisory board - with representatives from more than 10 towns - has poor attendance at its meetings.

"(The proposed changes are) trying to create a direct link to the chief elected officials," Congdon said.

Norwich City Manager Alan Bergren reminded fellow COG members that the proposed legislation affecting SEAT is more than just a simple vote. Rather, he said it is a commitment to spend money to further regionalize the transit district.

Bergren said Norwich pays about $146,000 for SEAT, the most of any town.

"If we're going to really have mass transit in this region, everyone is going to have to buy in," Bergren said. "It doesn't mean just votes, it's financial commitments. If we're moving forward with legislation, we're not just putting our votes here, we're putting our money here."

State. Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, a co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, said he has agreed to take the COG proposal on SEAT to his committee. State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, has a copy of the water authority proposal, COG executive director James S. Butler said.

Maynard said there would be a public hearing on the SEAT proposal scheduled for either next month or March. He said he understood Altman's concerns, but ultimately, he believes the council is sincere in its attempt to improve both SEAT and the water authority.

"I'm not deaf to the concerns that the SEAT board has," Maynard said. "I would want them to have every opportunity to express that in the public hearing."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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