New CMEEC consumer advocate on duty

Appointed in November as the new consumer advocate for customers in the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative system, Bill Kowalski plans to be a visible presence in the region during his first two-year term, which started Jan. 2.

Kowalski, a former attorney in the state Office of Consumer Counsel, was named in November to the position created in revisions to the state law that governs CMEEC. Kowalski’s part-time job is to keep ratepayers and CMEEC’s compliance with the state Freedom of Information Act on financial data and operations at the forefront.

While he does not have an official state office, Kowalski’s contact information now is posted on the state Consumer Counsel’s website. He can be reached at (203) 314-5601, by email at BKMECA18@gmail.com and by mail at P.O. Box 401, Durham, CT 06422.

Kowalski has contacted elected leaders of the five municipalities and asked to meet with them to discuss their goals for CMEEC and the consumer advocate position. CMEEC is owned by municipal utilities in Norwich, Groton City, Bozrah, Jewett City and two in Norwalk.

“Because CMEEC is a nonprofit cooperative, its member municipalities and their customers should be the ultimate arbiters of its effectiveness,” Kowalski wrote in his letter of introduction to Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom and to the other CMEEC town leaders. “(Public Act) 17-73 mandates the expansion of CMEEC operational transparency. This is an opportunity to help shape that process from its outset, and ensure that result.”

Kowalski will meet with Nystrom and separately with Griswold First Selectman Todd Babbitt on Jan. 23. He said he hasn’t yet scheduled meetings with other town leaders.

Kowalski’s duties will be focused on issues involving CMEEC itself, he said, not the individual member utilities.

On Dec. 19, before he officially started, he toured CMEEC facilities at 30 Stott Ave. in the Norwich Business Park and will regularly attend CMEEC meetings. He attended the Dec. 21 CMEEC board meeting.

He already has posed questions to the cooperative’s leadership. For example, CMEEC routinely measures its wholesale electric rates to member municipal utilities against rates of private investor-owned utilities, such as Eversource. Kowalski asked for a similar benchmark comparison to rates by other nonprofit utility cooperatives. He said other such cooperatives also post detailed annual financial information on their websites.

CMEEC has a track record of secrecy with financial information. The Day filed state Freedom of Information Act complaints last year seeking budget and revenue source information and how revenues in a margin fund, generated by contracts for energy and services to outside entities and by a surcharge on member ratepayers, is divided among the member utilities.

Despite rulings ordering the cooperative to provide the information, CMEEC never released complete nonfuel operations budgets showing details of staff and board expenses. The new state law requires the cooperative to provide the information to the state legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, along with a list of executive positions and their salaries and other compensation.

CMEEC used revenue from the margin fund to pay for controversial trips to the Kentucky Derby for four years. A public outcry over the trips led to the changes in the state law calling for stricter state oversight of the cooperative’s finances and language restricting CMEEC retreats to in-state locations with official business to be conducted.

The law also requires a five-year forensic audit of CMEEC’s finances. Kowalski plans to review the audit, which is expected to be submitted this spring to the state.

Nystrom agreed that Kowalski should work to ensure CMEEC’s operations are transparent but he also wants to make sure CMEEC remains financially strong, calling the cooperative a vital economic development tool for Norwich.

“I want to make sure they are solvent, financially sound,” Nystrom said. “They went astray. It’s been noted, and it’s time to move on.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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