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Norwich Public Utilities general manager gets glowing evaluation, declines raise

Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities General Manager Chris LaRose received a glowing performance evaluation this week for a “spectacular job” as head of the utility, but he rejected the proposed $10,000 bonus and 3% raise at least until functions return to normal following the COVID-19 crisis.

After voting to approve the overall $95.9 million 2020-21 utility budget Tuesday during its first virtual meeting, the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners shifted to an executive session teleconference to continue LaRose’s verbal performance evaluation. Upon returning to open session, the board voted unanimously to approve a positive evaluation, the proposed bonus and raise. His current salary remains at $205,500.

According to a transcription of the open session provided by NPU, board Chairman Robert Staley praised LaRose for restoring “administrative integrity” to NPU and for proposing budgets over the past two years that called for no rate hikes in electric, water and natural gas services. The new budget includes a 6% sewer rate increase starting Nov. 1. Staley also noted for the second straight year under LaRose’s leadership, NPU has increased its 10% revenue share to the city.

“Bob, I am very appreciative,” LaRose responded, according to the transcript. “I thank you for the confidence in my leadership, but I will request one thing; I request that I not receive any pay increase until every employee is returned to work, and we have returned to normal operations for the utility due to the coronavirus.”

All 148 NPU employees still are working during the COVID-19 partial shutdown of the NPU headquarters on South Golden Street, customer service center on North Main Street and water and sewer facilities. Skeleton crews are working at the control room, the two Stonybrook and Deep River reservoir drinking water plants and the sewage treatment plant.

Crews checking equipment and substation operations and working on specific projects are kept segregated from one another to limit potential exposure to the virus, LaRose said Friday. Other employees are going to the office to process payments, and more are on call for potential emergencies.

The utility is operating at normal function, and at full service, LaRose said.

“Right now, our priority is the health and safety of our customers and our employees,” he said Friday. “We need to make sure no one is impacted in the community. We provide life services, and we provide essential role. And our customers need us now more than ever. I’m very proud of our entire team, and everyone is working in new scenarios and new ways.”

LaRose, a 22-year NPU veteran employee and former assistant general manager, was appointed general manager last July after having served as acting general manager since Nov. 15, 2018, when former General Manager John Bilda was placed on paid leave following his indictment, along with four other Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials, on public corruption charges.

Bilda and the board reached a separation agreement in January 2019, and the federal criminal case associated with CMEEC’s hosting of lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a West Virginia golf resort is still pending.

LaRose has refused raises in the past. When he was named acting general manager in November 2018, the board offered him an 8.5% raise over his then-$188,864 salary, but he declined at the time.

When he was named permanent general manager in July, LaRose eliminated the assistant general manager position. Staley said at the meeting that eliminating the position, combined with LaRose’s “more conservative” salary, have reduced the compensation for top administration by 50%.

“And so, between the great job and the economies we have achieved,” Staley said, “I think it’s a completely deserved raise.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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