In wake of scandals, Norwich utilities commission reappointment sparks debate

Norwich — The reappointment of Republican utilities commission member Steve Becker by a narrow 4-3 vote Monday night sparked debate over Norwich Public Utilities’ role in economic development, revenue payments to the city and whether more change is needed at the city-owned utility to overcome recent scandals that led to the federal indictment of its former general manager.

Becker was reappointed to a five-year term expiring March 1, 2024, in a partisan City Council vote Monday. The council’s three Democrats disagreed with Becker’s and the commission’s approach to economic development and the charter-required payments of at least 10 percent of gross revenues to the city. Becker has said the charter should be revised to eliminate the payments, aldermen said.

The four council Republicans said Becker brings knowledge and a thoughtful approach to the utility commission’s decisions. Alderwoman Stacy Gould, chairwoman of the council’s appointments/reappointments committee, said NPU’s sale of utilities to developments in surrounding towns — including Foxwoods Resort Casino, Mohegan Sun Casino, and trash incinerators in Preston and Lisbon — “isn’t anything new.”

“The sale of these services to our neighboring towns generates revenue to the Norwich Public Utilities, and in turn adds to the 10 percent contribution that the utility makes to our general fund," she said. "Generating new sources of revenue by expanding our customer base helps stabilize our rates.”

Becker’s four colleagues on the board supported his reappointment during public comment Monday, with member Robert Staley calling Becker “an outstanding member” of the commission.

Staley said it was incorrect that NPU is not involved in economic development issues, citing the utility’s support for large projects such as the Ponemah Mill redevelopment in Taftville, the retention and expansion of Atlantic City Linen Supply in the business park and financial support for the Norwich Community Development Corp.

Gould said Becker’s leadership can help bring NPU “out from under the dark cloud” of the recent scandals surrounding NPU officials’ participation in lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a West Virginia golf resort by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative. Former general manager John Bilda and former utilities board Chairman James Sullivan were among five CMEEC officials indicted on federal corruption charges in the scandal.

The commission reached a separation agreement with Bilda in January that allows him to retire with full pension. Becker was appointed to the commission in January 2016 to complete Sullivan’s term after he had resigned in October 2015 — before the derby scandal broke — following a sexual harassment complaint filed against him by an NPU employee.

Democratic Alderman Joseph DeLucia said he could not vote for Becker’s reappointment, because “our positions are incongruent” and Becker’s positions are “longitudinally opposed to mine.”

DeLucia disagreed with Becker’s positions on NPU expanding service to developments in surrounding towns, including Franklin, Sprague and Preston, as well as a large housing project being constructed just over the city line in Bozrah. DeLucia also said NPU’s charter-required 10 percent revenue contribution to the city should be increased, and ratepayers should not be charged for it.

“I believe the utility should not be expanding into the surrounding towns with lower mill rates at the expense of the Norwich grand list,” DeLucia said. “My responsibility here is city first, utility second. ... Until every property in Norwich is performing at its highest level, access to our utility system to the extent that we control it, should be the carrot that Norwich has to offer to developers.”

Democratic Alderwoman Stephanie Burnham also opposed Becker’s appointment, saying the current utilities’ commission has not done enough to win back ratepayers’ trust.

“This council, and the council before this one, has done the absolute bare minimum” on what she called the multitude of issues at NPU, and called the appointment the first chance to make real change that would lead to new direction and be proactive, rather than reactive, to issues.

c.bessette@theday.com

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