Report by Paula Antolini
June 16, 2017 1:14PM EDT
LETTER TO THE EDITOR FROM CYNTHIA MCCORKINDALE
Should Bethel Water/Sewer Users Be Notified of Decisions That Could Impact Our Utility Fees? Letter to the Editor from Cynthia McCorkindale and First Selectman Knickerbocker Response
If you are comfortable not having advance opportunity to publicly register your opinion about decisions that could affect your water/sewer rates, then this letter is not for you.
If, however, you believe that Bethel water/sewer ratepayers should be made aware of the intention to create a new position and expand the government payroll, then read on.
Posted on the Town website as a Job Opportunity on June 5th is a description of the newly-created Director of Public Utilities, who would oversee water and sewer.
Just like when Mr. Knickerbocker intentionally kept Bethel water/sewer ratepayers out of the loop with his backroom Aquarion negotiations, so has he created a new position without telling anyone on the Board of Finance, or even Town employees. Why? Because he can.
There is no statutory reason why he cannot do this. Bethel’s water/sewer department is a utilities company, and therefore, has its own budget – one that the Board of Finance has no jurisdiction over.
The way I see it, if Mr. Knickerbocker can figure out a way to slide important items through without hearing public input, he does.The optics here are not good.
As a ratepayer, I would like the opportunity to provide public input.
My first question: What’s the hurry? We don’t even have a budget for the STATE yet. The timing is troubling.
The Director of Public Utilities position that Mr. Knickerbocker has created includes $100K salary plus benefits, all of which are paid for by our usage fees. Mr. Knickerbocker says these funds were factored into the rates over a year ago, however, I can find nothing about it in the meeting minutes.
I encourage anyone who is concerned about their water/sewer rates to attend the next Bethel Public Utilities Commission meeting this Monday, June 19th at 4pm at the Municipal Center, Meeting Room A.
First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker’s reply to McCorkindale’s similar comment on Facebook, June 15, 2017:
Yes, by all means, please come to the next Public Utilities meeting and learn the truth. It is so unfortunate that Ms. McCorkindale cannot resist the temptation to distort facts and mislead people, especially as she uses her position as a Board of Finance member to advance her own political agenda. There are several points that beg clarification.
One, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) operates separately from town government. Not one penny of taxpayer funds is involved. All expenses are paid by rate payers into a non-profit enterprise fund. The Board of Finance has no authority whatsoever over this operation and has no right to interfere in its operation. The Public Utility Commission operates separately under long established state law and does not need nor is required to seek permission from any Board of Finance member to do its job.
Two, several years ago the PUC discovered that the town’s water system had been neglected for many decades, resulting in serious deterioration of its infrastructure, and rates had not been adjusted for many years causing financial losses of nearly $100,000 per year. These losses were being drained from the town’s General Fund. The PUC also became aware that tens of millions in upgrades were likely necessary. At that time, the PUC voted to entertain an offer from Aquarion Water Company to purchase the town’s water system for $7.2 million, more or less “sight unseen” with regard to how much infrastructure upgrade costs might be involved. At that time, the members of the PUC believed the sale would reduce the cost of water to Bethel customers in the long run. Contrary to Ms. McCorkindale’s distortion about secrecy, the PUC conducted two public hearings, one town meeting and a referendum on the topic. Every aspect of Aquarion’s offer was 100% transparent to the public. Many people believed Aquarion’s offer was fair, but the referendum failed. Some Bethel voters expressed the sentiment that they would prefer that the town retained ownership of its water system even if it ultimately cost more to do so. Every member of the PUC took this feedback to heart.
Following the Aquarion decision and with respect to sentiments of town voters, the PUC immediately launched a multi-year capital improvement program to correct the system’s deficiencies. This involved constructing the new Eureka water tank (previously discussed), new wells (now coming online), upgrades to water treatment facilities, new pumping stations to boost pressure and volume, new hydrants to improve public safety and replacements of aging, failing water mains and valves. As of today, the PUC is now about half way through a $24 million dollar capital upgrade project that became necessary to bring our water system up to all health and environmental standards, far more than was ever dreamed back when Aquarion made its offer. I would imagine the Aquarion executives are quite happy our referendum failed.
Along with the capital upgrades, the PUC has also believed for several years that a specialist in public water systems is needed to guide the department. This is not new. Anyone who has attended PUC meetings over the past four years or so will see this has been discussed openly. Last year the PUC finally decided the time has come to put qualified leadership in place to ensure Bethel water customers never have to worry about seeing another notice in the Pennysaver that Bethel’s water contains toxic chemicals linked to cancer. In the wake of the Flint, MI public water disaster, in which thousands of children will suffer lifelong debilities due to lead poisoning and several deaths occurred because of Legionnaires contamination, states across this nation, including Connecticut, have jacked up public water health regulations sharply to protect the public.
The Bethel Water Department can no longer afford to be just one small part of the Public Works Department. It needs leadership that is 100% knowledgeable of all state and federal water regulations and procedures and 100% devoted to ensuring the safety and quality of the water we send into Bethel homes. It needs a leader that is completely devoted to operating a water company and knows how to do it. As she has done so often in the past, Ms. McCorkindale is attributing this decision to me to make a political attack, as you can plainly see in the post above. It was initiated not by me, but unanimously by the Public Utilities Commission, which is the very job they are expected to perform for the public, and for the record, I support the initiative 100%.
Let me reiterate that the Bethel water department does not receive funding from your tax dollars. It is a separate, non profit business, and it needs to be allowed to run like a business without interference.. The best way to interrupt that business and cause it to fail is to inject politics into it, which is precisely what Ms. McCorkindale is doing. Political pressure what caused the water system to be neglected many years ago, and I speak for every resident who trusts that the water that flows out of their taps is safe that we must never allow that to happen again.
The cost of hiring a utilities director was built into the rate structure more than a year ago. It has nothing whatsoever to do with either the town or state budgets. The additional person will not by itself cause any rate increase. The PUC will continue to execute the upgrades that we need to ensure clean water that meets all state standards all the time, without exception. Every reader on this thread who obtains their family’s drinking water from this town deserves nothing less. A dedicated public water professional will ensure that result.
If you have any questions whatsoever, please call my office at 203-794-8501.
Thank you for reading this long reply.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the letter writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Bethel Advocate.