The military has all kinds of colorful terms for situations that turn into disasters of varying degrees. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — most of them can’t be repeated here.
Why bring this up in a news column, you ask? Because the situation with the Metropolitan District Commission, Niagara Bottling, and the town of Bloomfield is, on some levels, normal. But somewhere along the line, it became an unmitigated disaster. A self-inflicted wound. A fiasco.
But why normal? Let me explain to those who might be unaware of the circumstances. Niagara Bottling has received a multimillion-dollar tax abatement from the town of Bloomfield to build a water bottling plant in that town that would employ a few dozen people to perhaps 130, depending on whom you talk to.
In order to fill the bottles, the company would draw millions of gallons a week from MDC reservoirs, which have plenty of excess capacity. In exchange for being the largest single commercial customer, Niagara would receive a special discounted rate from the MDC.
None of this so far strikes me as terribly out of the ordinary. States and municipalities regularly bestow tax incentives to companies to relocate or stay put. And discounts for buying in bulk have become the order of the day.
The first sign of trouble in this “situation normal” was the high level of secrecy and the poor public relations strategy surrounding the process for approval. The $4.9 million tax abatement in Bloomfield was granted to the California-based company without input from any of the other towns using MDC water.
It appears that Bloomfield residents were kept in the dark about the formation of the plan. Bloomfield taxpayers obtained emails through Freedom of Information requests showing MDC, Bloomfield, Niagara, and MetroHartford Alliance officials discussing — or perhaps conspiring on — how to proceed with Niagara’s proposal.
This one in advance of a public hearing from Katie Booher, Niagara’s development specialist, to Jose Giner, Bloomfield’s director of planning and economic development, is most telling: “Will the company’s name be mentioned? If so we may need to pull it from the agenda and postpone till the next. We are not ready for that to be public.” Sounds like company representatives giving marching orders to the very town they’re seeking a handout from. Note to town officials: Tail should not wag dog.
MDC officials also committed a colossal PR blunder in December. They voted to pass an ordinance allowing the quasi-public corporation to offer discounts for high-volume users consuming 500,000 gallons or more of water a day — the first such discount the MDC had ever offered. Meanwhile, the MDC raised its rates for regular customers, while agreeing to give Niagara a 19-percent discount.
Now any objective observer following this story would have to ask just who is giving questionable advice to the MDC and the Bloomfield Town Council? Well, I’ll give you a hint: We learned this week that it’s the worst possible person. Not on account of qualifications, mind you, but because it is the same person.
That’s right. Bloomfield Town Attorney Marc Needelman has also represented the MDC in hundreds of collections cases. Before the revelation about his dual roles, Needelman was asked for advice from the town on whether it could legally revisit the terms of the Niagara tax abatement. Not surprisingly, he said “no.”
And guess who chairs the MDC’s board? William A. “Billy” DiBella, the former state Senate majority leader who agreed to pay nearly $800,000 to settle a Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit connected to the state pension fund scandal in the office of convicted former state treasurer Paul Silvester in the late 1990s. And officials say DiBella would have been indicted criminally in the same case if federal prosecutors hadn’t encountered problems controlling a key witness.
Lawmakers in Hartford are trying to clean up this mess, though I’m not sure how effective they will be (we may be beyond repair at this point). The cleanest way to do with this would have been for Bloomfield officials to insist from the beginning that Needelman recuse himself from advising them on this matter and to conduct the entire process in a much more inclusive and transparent fashion. The MDC commissioners should have announced in advance that, in order to offset the enormous cost of rebuilding infrastructure, they’re considering selling a small portion of the public water supply to bottling companies — and that bottling will stop if we find ourselves in drought conditions.
I don’t know whether anything criminal happened in the case of Niagara, the town of Bloomfield, and the MDC. But it sure doesn’t pass the smell test. This is the kind of skulduggery that causes good people to shake their heads in disbelief at a rigged system. Indeed, this debacle breeds the kind of cynicism that can cause those same people to vote for someone like Donald Trump. And that is perhaps the greatest crime of all.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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