The legislature’s Planning and Development Committee on Friday approved a bill that prioritizes residential water customers over commercial bottling companies during a drought, and also another bill to make the local tax abatement process for developers more transparent for taxpayers.
Both pieces of legislation were proposed following a controversial deal between the Metropolitan District Commission, which manages the public water supply for eight Hartford area towns, the town of Bloomfield, and California-based Niagra Bottling Co.
The prioritization bill was proposed by Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who was concerned about a regional water authority’s decision to sell its water at a discounted rate to Niagara Bottling Co., which plans to bottle and sell the water. The committee voted 15-5 in favor of the legislation Friday.
The Metropolitan District Commission came up with a discounted rate for high-volume water users like Niagara.
Bloomfield residents and residents from the eight towns served by the MDC complained about the lack of transparency regarding both the tax abatement and the discounted water rate.
Donna Landerman, of Bloomfield, said there was no transparency regarding either of those issues.
Landerman said companies should have to identify from the beginning of the tax abatement process who they are and who their tenant will be. Separate legislation addressing that issue and proposed by Rep. David Baram, D-Bloomfield, was approved by the committee on an 18-2 vote Friday.
But the issues surrounding both bills are much larger for Landerman.
“It’s a larger issue than just the drought,” Landerman said. “Water is an incredibly valuable natural resource and it should not be turned into something that an out-of-state, multi-national corporation, buys and sells at a huge markup for profit.”
Freedom of Information requests for documents related to the deal turned up communications between Bloomfield town officials, the MetroHartford Alliance, and Niagara Bottling dating back to 2014.
Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, said it’s very clear the transparency was not there at all.
“All we’re doing by moving this forward is relooking at it at the appropriate time,” Srinivasan said. “The state water plan will be out soon.”
But not every lawmaker agreed Bye’s bill was the right piece of legislation to address the issues raised by residents.
Rep. Mike France, R-Gales Ferry, said he’s concerned about how it could impact a local water authority’s ability to set rates.
“It is not uncommon for businesses that consume larger quantities of water to pay less per gallon, once they reach above a certain threshold,” France said.
He said he shares the concerns about the process, but doesn’t believe Bye’s bill addresses that. Further, he said Bye’s bill is a stepping stone to further regulation by the state of local water authorities.
Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said the MDC has to find ways to lower its costs and Bye’s bill would hinder that process. He said there’s no reason for the legislature to inject itself in the process.
William DiBella, chairman of the MDC board, said the sale of water is necessary to pay off the bonds from a $2.4 billion sewer separation project that protects the Connecticut River from raw sewage.
Scott Jellison, MDC’s executive director, told the committee last week that the rate they’ve given Niagara is estimated to bring in $3.8 million a year and will reduce the rates for its other customers. He said the rate they created is not specifically for Niagara and is available to other customers who fit a specific criteria.
Niagara Bottling Co. officials didn’t testify in person last week.
In an emailed statement Friday, they said the Bloomfield plant will create 120 jobs.
“As a family owned and operated company for over 50 years we will bring so many positive things to this area — including a strong sense of community. We believe that the Legislature will come to understand this as the bill runs its course,” a Niagara spokesman said in a statement.
Bye said passage of the bill is “a victory for the citizens who have been fighting to ensure fairness in Connecticut’s water future.”
The bill now heads to the Senate.