A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the areas around Hartford made a case on Friday for expanding oversight of the Metropolitan District Commission, the quasi-public agency that provides water and sewer services to much of the region.
The bill, raised for a public hearing in the Planning and Development Committee, would require an ethics code, annual audits of the agency by state auditors, as well as a task force to study its charter.
The MDC provides water supply and sewer services to eight towns in and around Hartford. It also provides water to portions of four other towns, who are considered “non-member” towns. Currently, those towns can appoint commissioners to the MDC, however those commissioners are not permitted to vote. The bill before the legislature would allow those towns a vote on changes to water rates.
During a morning press conference, Rep. Tom Delnicki, R-South Windsor, and Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, stressed the bill was not intended as an attack on the politically-connected water supplier. Slap suggested it was more of a “nudge” to reset the balance of power in favor of towns and water consumers.
“Fundamentally, the MDC exists to serve its customers and the towns. It’s not the other way around,” Slap said, “and that’s how it feels to a lot of my constituents.”
“We’re not here to sink the MDC,” said Delnicki, who worked at the MDC for 32 years. “We’re here to try to make it better.”
In four pages of written testimony submitted to the legislative committee, Christopher Stone, a lawyer for the MDC, opposed each section of the bill. The MDC is already subject to annual audits by an independent firm, prior acts of the legislature have updated its 1929 charter, and the MDC already had its own code of ethics, Stone wrote.
“I would submit that we already have a task force that is called the state legislature,” Stone said during the hearing. “We are a creation of the General Assembly, we’re a special act municipality and over the past decade, for example, you’ve amended our charter at least four times.”
Meanwhile, he argued that giving non-member towns a vote on rates would give residents of those towns disproportionate representation over other municipalities where the MDC served more residents.
During the hearing, proponents argued that the legislation was necessary because the regional water supplier had lost the confidence of its customers in some towns.
“There’s been a lot of trust that has been lost in the MDC for communities and residents in member towns throughout the year,” Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, said. “I think more transparency should be welcome.”
Environmental advocates were also supportive of re-examining the MDC long-standing charter. Lori Brown, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, said the agency had previously made decisions that were in the best interest of neither their customers nor the environment.
Brown pointed to the MDC’s choice to provide a discount to Niagara Bottling while increasing rates for local customers. She said it was time to reexamine the agency’s business model, which precludes any approach that would incentivize conserving water.
“The MDC’s business model is based on the need to sell ever-increasing quantities of water,” Brown said. “They need to do that to remain solvent and maintain their infrastructure. They claim that their charter prevents them from adopting a conservation-based rate structure.”
The bill, proposed by Delnicki, currently has eight co-sponsors largely from the suburbs and rural areas in the Hartford region. Delnicki said those supporters rallied around the bill “organically.” He said he expected that lawmakers from Hartford may also support the legislation as it gains momentum.
“If you think about what’s going on in the northern part of Hartford with the — any time that there’s a rain event, you have people’s basements flooded — I suspect that there would have been support there,” Delnicki said.