SEAT demand for payment of assessment angers Waterford officials

Waterford - First Selectman Daniel Steward said Tuesday that a letter he received from Southeast Area Transit is trying to "bully" the town into paying a $5,812 assessment the transit authority says it is owed.

"This is bullying. I think it's inappropriate in a business environment," Steward said at a Board of Selectmen meeting. "This tells us that if we don't pay, we have to withdraw from SEAT."

The February letter from Paul Altman, the chairman of SEAT's board of directors, references a decision the town's Board of Finance made last year to cut SEAT's budget assessment for the current fiscal year by $5,812.

Finance board members cited inefficiencies in the transit district, which provides bus services to the town and eight other municipalities in the region. They also were unhappy with SEAT for providing little data on bus ridership in town.

The Board of Selectmen voted Tuesday to approve the decision and return the issue to the Board of Finance for consideration.

Altman cited a state statute in the letter that says the town's only recourse if it does not pay is to withdraw from the transit district. The letter asks the town to submit promptly the outstanding balance and to inform the district of its intent to remain a member.

Steward said he asked for a meeting with Altman and was denied. He also said the town is in the process of exploring other organizations and proposals that could provide transit service in town.

"If you look at the entire area - the 40 towns in eastern Connecticut - is there a better way to provide service?" Steward said. "There are other options out there."

Board of Finance member J.W. "Bill" Sheehan said the town already relies on a senior citizen bus service, subsidized by state funds, that provides transportation to residents.

He also mentioned a proposal for a "tourist loop" bus route that would run from Union Station in New London along Interstate 95 to the Mystic area, and also would make stops at Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun and other locations. That project would cost $12 million, according to a 2004 study, and has stalled because of a lack of private funds.

At recent meetings, members of SEAT's Board of Directors have argued that the member fees its receives from its nine towns are non-negotiable. SEAT received about 8 percent - $450,000 - of its $5.5 million in revenue last fiscal year from member fees.

The transit district has experienced a difficult financial period since an oil leak was detected in 2010 in an underground fuel line behind its Route 12 bus facility in Preston. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has estimated the leak at 90,000 gallons, although Altman has disputed that figure.

United Oil Recovery Inc., an independent contractor SEAT hired to handle environmental cleanup, filed a lawsuit in September against the transit authority seeking $414,946. United argues that SEAT did not pay for cleanup costs once it realized the scope of the leak. The case is still ongoing.

SEAT also recently raised its adult and student fares by 25 cents and its senior fares by 15 cents. The increases, the transit district's first since 2006, are expected to go into effect on or after March 26.

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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