Norwich utilities commission appoints Chris LaRose as general manager, approves contract

Norwich — “Acting” was removed from new Norwich Public Utilities General Manager Chris LaRose’s title Tuesday, as the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners approved a three-year contract with him following a 20-minute closed-door session.

The contract calls for LaRose to start at a salary of $205,500, retroactive to July 1 and have annual reviews each December with a written evaluation, assessments of short-term and long-term goals and possible bonuses to be considered by the board.

After the unanimous vote, and a round of applause by the board and NPU staff present, board Chairman Robert Staley said the overall salary and benefits package, and the accompanying announcement that NPU will eliminate LaRose’s former assistant general manager position, the package is “tens of thousands of dollars less than the former general manager.”

In the board’s written statement issued following the vote, the board wrote that LaRose’s compensation package is “below the bottom 25 percent of public utilities’ general managers for organizations like NPU” with annual revenue of $100 million or more, according to the American Public Power Association.

Staley said looking at the 2018 compensation for the general manager and assistant general manager, the new contract represents a more than 50 percent cut in costs. Plus, Staley added, the utility saved an estimated $50,000 to $70,000 in the cost of a national search firm.

“We’ve got the right person,” Staley said. “Because we were so impressed with Chris, and we had a seven-month audition for him, which is a far better way to vet somebody than a search consultant and an interview process.”

LaRose, a 21-year NPU veteran employee, has been working as acting general manager since last Nov. 15, when former General Manager John Bilda was placed on paid leave following his indictment along with four other officials from the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative on public corruption charges. The board reached a separation agreement with Bilda in January.

LaRose, 55, of Salem, started at NPU as a utility engineer in August 1997, was promoted to operations integrity manager and then to operations manager and in 2008 to assistant general manager. When he was named acting general manager, the board offered him an 8.5 percent raise over his $188,864 salary but he declined the raise at the time.

“I am both excited and honored to be named general manager of NPU and to lead such a talented and committed group of employees,” LaRose said in a written statement handed out after the vote. “While the past few years have been challenging for NPU, our team has always been focused on meeting the needs and expectations of our customers.”

Bilda’s original 2005 contract was widely considered to be one-sided in his favor and in violation of the city charter. In 2014, the board even authorized then-Chairman James Sullivan — also indicted in the CMEEC scandal — to extend the contract and award raises and bonuses without board review or approval. A five-year extension was signed in 2016. The next two board chairwomen continued the practice of awarding raises and bonuses without board votes.

Staley and NPU attorney Anthony Palermino emphasized that LaRose’s new eight-page contract complies with the city charter and already was certified and signed by city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll on Monday. Driscoll’s statement also certified that the contract complies with the city charter.

A week earlier, the city Personnel and Pension Board voted 4-1 to award Bilda a full pension with annual payments of $147,297.22 based on his salary, including the raises never voted on by the utilities commission, bonuses and NPU reimbursements for Bilda’s contributions to his deferred compensation plan.

c.bessette@theday.com

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