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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Lamont’s Port Authority merger plan on the shoals

    In this file photo from Oct. 3, 2023, Gov. Ned Lamont speaks with New London officials at State Pier in New London, located in one of three ports overseen by the Connecticut Port Authority. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to merge Connecticut’s port and airport authorities was dealt a significant blow this week when members of the state legislature’s Appropriations Committee declined to support the proposal.

    The joint committee on Thursday approved a substitute House bill that stripped any mention of merging the two stand-alone quasi-public agencies into one overarching Maritime Authority overseen by the Airport Authority's executive director.

    The modified bill also requires Port Authority leaders to update legislators several times a year on the group’s state-mandated activities.

    The Airport Authority, which oversees operations at Bradley International Airport and five other state-owned airports in the state, was approached by the state Office of Policy and Management last year to pitch the idea of a merger as a way to give the Port Authority, which oversees the ports of New London, Bridgeport and New Haven, access to more resources and staffing.

    State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairman of the joint committee, said one of her main reasons for not supporting the merger was that previously enacted oversight rules placed on the Port Authority, specifically those covering state contracting and procurements, would not transfer over to a new Maritime Authority.

    Those requirements were the result of criticism over how the authority handled contracts for the redevelopment of State Pier in New London.

    “We want to keep those guardrails in place,” she said on Friday.

    She also raised the prospect of a change in the Airport Authority’s executive director’s post, currently held by Kevin Dillon, and inadequate staffing at the small Port Authority.

    “We felt this wasn’t the right time to move this (proposal) over,” she said.

    Lamont’s proposal received only a lukewarm ―and sometimes hostile ― reception from members of both authority boards. Only five pieces of public testimony were received by the legislative committee in the lead-up to Thursday’s vote, with only the executive directors of both groups signaling support of the merger.

    Tony Sheridan, chairman of the Airport Authority's Board of Directors, on Thursday acknowledged Dillon had discussed with the board retiring at the end of the year, but said the airport group was still ready and able to absorb its sister authority.

    He said the authority is advertising for a new executive director and has identified at least one internal candidate. He said Dillon has said he was willing to stay on, if necessary, to aid with any transitions.

    “(The merger) makes perfectly good sense to me when you’re looking to increase efficiency,” Sheridan said, noting both groups possess legal, advertising and other departments that are ripe for consolidation. "The Port Authority has three employees and we have 160. We have a well-tuned professional staff and there’s no doubt in my mind that if this merger were approved, we could do it and do it well.”

    Under Lamont’s plan, the Airport Authority’s board would serve as the new Maritime Authority board.

    State Sen. Martha Marx and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, members of New London’s Democratic legislative delegation, voted for the substitute bill. Marx cited a lack of stakeholder support for a merger and said any consolidation ran the risk of diluting the Port Authority’s attention from its port-related work.

    “It’s not the right direction right now,” adding the substitute bill represented one of “best things to come out” the short legislative session.

    Nolan, while acknowledging a merger could lead to a streamlining of operations, worried about a loss of “synergy” within the two groups.

    “I think we’d see a Maritime Authority falling into a ‘one or the other’ situation, when it came to prioritizing either ports or airports,” he said.

    OPM spokesman Chris Collibee on Friday said Lamont forwarded the initial plan as a way to “enhance the work we are doing at our ports.”

    “We are disappointed that the legislature did not move the proposal forward, but over the next month, we will continue to work with the General Assembly to determine the best way forward,” Collibee stated in an email.

    In addition to striking any mention of a merger from Lamont’s bill, committee members also inserted new language requiring the Port Authority to submit quarterly reports to both the state legislative Appropriations and Transportation committees and other “stakeholders.”

    The reports would include updates on the authority’s small harbor and marina, dredging and marketing work in the state, issues raised by committee members during a public hearing on the bill.

    The substitute bill is expected to be taken up by House members later this month before heading for a Senate vote and, ultimately, to Lamont’s desk for scrutiny.

    Ulysses Hammond, interim executive director of the Port Authority, said on Friday he’d hold off on commenting on the modified bill until it is finalized.

    In response to the added reporting requirements suggested by the committee, he noted the group is poised to begin a statewide dredging and disposal-needs assessment; has launched a new round of harbor development funding applications; and is searching for a maritime development manager.

    “The (Port Authority) welcomes and is well-prepared to move forward in support and growth of the maritime economic sector and coastal infrastructure however the Governor and Legislature deem appropriate,” Hammond said in an emailed statement.

    j.penney@theday.com

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