News Flash: Connecticut’s Consumer Utility Hotline Saved

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Cross-posted from Pelto’s Point at the New Haven Advocate)

Word this morning is that Dan Esty, the Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has reversed his earlier decision to end Connecticut’s popular consumer utility hotline.

Layoff notices to the hotline’s staff have apparently been rescinded – just a week before the hotline was scheduled to be eliminated.

Although the hotline is paid for by a surcharge on the utility companies, the Malloy Administration had decided to layoff the 14 employees who worked on the hotline.

The proposed cut was NOT part of Governor Malloy’s Plan B Budget (the plan that he was implementing in response to the initial failure of the Malloy/SEBAC Concession Agreement). Rather it was a budget cut made in response to the Legislature’s decision to support Malloy’s merger and cut to what were the energy and environment departments.

Opposition to the decision to eliminate the hotline included strong statements from the co-chairs of the General Assembly’s energy committee.  State Senator John Fonfara and State Representative Vickie Nardello wrote to the Malloy Administration “asking that the decision be scrapped and the unit be allowed to continue to do its good work.”

State Consumer Counsel Mary Healey also weighed in telling the Hartford Courant “elimination of
the entire consumer services unit is a concern for me as a ratepayer advocate because I am not clear as to who [consumers] will be directed to when they are directed on their utility bills to a number that sends them to the consumer service unit.”

Last year 45,000 consumer calls and complaints were handled by the consumer hotline.

If the news is accurate, it is good news for Connecticut’s utility consumers.

Updated on Consumer Utility Hotline: Deafening Silence

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(Cross-posted from Pelto’s Point at the New Haven Advocate)

As reported early here and elsewhere, when faced with a cut in state funds to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Commissioner Daniel Esty decided to end the popular consumer utility hotline that logged 45,000 calls last year.

Although the hotline is paid for by a surcharge on the utility companies, the Malloy Administration sent out layoff notices to the 14 employees who work on the hotline.

Their last day of work is just two weeks away.

At a press conference following news reports that Esty was ending the program, State Senator John Fonfara, co-chairman of the legislature’s energy committee, called the move “a lousy idea.”

Rep. Vickie Nardello, the House co-chair of the committee joined Fonfara in a letter “asking that the decision be scrapped and the unit be allowed to continue to do its good work.”

State Consumer Counsel Mary Healey told the Hartford Courant “elimination of the entire consumer services unit is a concern for me as a ratepayer advocate because I am not clear as to who [consumers] will be directed to when they are directed on their utility bills to a number that sends them to the consumer service unit.”

More recently Senator Fonfara told WCBS radio that the Malloy Administration told him that the utility hotline will continue in “some presence” but didn’t elaborate.

Meanwhile, from the state agency been “deafening silence” and time is running out for this key program that has helped thousands and thousands of Connecticut citizens with their utility problems.

Update on Haddam Land Swap; Commissioner says no problem because there were no “deed restrictions” on the land

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(Cross-posted from Pelto’s Point at the New Haven Advocate)

Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty faced opponents of the Haddam “land swap” deal yesterday in what the Hartford Courant described as a “sometimes heated question-and-answer session.”

Wait, What? Readers will remember that the Legislature passed and Governor Malloy signed a bill swapping 17 acres of state-owned land overlooking the Connecticut River for 87 acres of land adjacent to a state park.  The developer will now use the 17 acres to build an upscale mall on the river view land.

Link to the previous Wait, What? post; http://jonpelto.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/dep-leader-calls-controversial-land-deal-%e2%80%9cnot-the-most-important-environmental-issue%e2%80%9d/

A similar bill was vetoed by Governor Rell last year pointing out that despite the legislative support the Department of Environmental Protection strongly opposed the transfer.

This year, Connecticut’s environmental groups once again geared up in opposition of the bill.  However, thanks to the work of the bills primary sponsor, the Senate Chairwoman of the Finance Committee, both
Malloy and Esty chose not to make any statements during the legislative session and Governor Malloy quickly and quietly signed the bill into law soon after the legislative session ended.

Opponents claimed that since both the seller and the State agreed to purchase the land for open space, Connecticut state government was obligated to maintain the land and could not transfer it to a private developer.

At Thursday’s meeting Commissioner Esty said that the reports that there were restrictions on the Haddam land was “misinformation” and that “there was no promise to protect [the land] for the seller.”

The notion that the lack of a deed restriction made it “okay” to trade the land to a private developer is more than a bit disingenuous.

The 17 acres in question was purchased through the Connecticut Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust
Program.

The fund was a 1986 initiative of Governor William O’Neill (the last Democrat to have served in the Governor’s Office).  At the time, the Governor and his Administration recognized the policy (and political
importance) of doing more to permanently protected open space and farmland.

I know, because I was there and deeply involved in using the 1986 legislative session to better position the
Governor’s fall re-election effort.  In the small world department, another key player was none other than Tim Bannon, Malloy’s present chief of staff who, at the time served as O’Neill’s speech writer and part of the governor’s inner circle.

The 1986 legislation even included an introductory explanation that laid out the goals of the effort.  It’s an explanation the remains in statute to this day.

The new fund was designed to “(1) Acquire land that represents the ecological diversity of Connecticut, including natural features such as riverine, montane, coastal and geologic systems or other natural areas, on behalf of the state, in order to ensure the preservation and conservation of such land for recreational,
scientific, educational, cultural and aesthetic purposes and (2) acquire land of unusual natural interest as additions to the system of parks, forests, wildlife and fishery management areas, natural areas and dedicated natural area preserves in the state for the beneficial use and enjoyment of the public.

In 1989, O’Neill was still Governor, another section was added reading that the goal was also to “(3) acquire land identified as essential habitat for endangered and threatened species.

And in 1998 a final criteria was added  that said that the fund could be used to purchase land to (4) offset carbon dioxide produced through combustion of fossil fuels by preserving lands that naturally absorb it.

Now, twenty five years later, Connecticut‘s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust program remains
the state’s primary mechanism for acquiring and preserving environmentally important open space.

As reported in today’s Hartford Courant, Rob Smith, an East Haddam resident and a former top administrator with the Department of Environmental Protection’s parks division spoke up at the meeting.  Smith confronted Commissioner Esty’s claim that there was no restriction on the sale of the land saying “You can’t make statements like that if you want people to trust you.”

But Esty maintained that the land transfer was appropriate and even told the group that it was a good deal for the state.

How and why this bill made it through the General Assembly and was signed into law would make a great case study about how politics and power can be used to steamroll policy (and in this case historic intent).

Courant Story:  http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-esty-visits-gillette-castle-0805-20110804,0,2570661.story

DEEP Commissioner Ends Popular Consumer Hotline for Utility Problems

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(Cross-posted from Pelto’s Point at the New Haven Advocate)

In the end, it’s all a matter of priorities and it turns out that the Malloy Administration doesn’t consider a consumer hotline that received 45,000 calls last year from Connecticut consumers in search of help a high enough priority.

Worse, adding insult to injury, the funding for this key consumer service doesn’t even come from state’s taxpayers.  The service is paid for by a surcharge on the utility companies.

Despite that, Dan Esty, Governor Malloy’s new commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has decided to end the hotline and lay off the state workers who have been helping consumers deal with the problems that they are having with their utility companies.

The new DEEP was created through the merger of state’s Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Public Utilities Commission and the Energy Division of the Office of Policy and Management.

And now, thanks to a story by Jon Lender in today’s Hartford Courant, we learn that one of Commissioner Esty’s first decisions was to end the successful Consumer Utility Call-in Center.  See Courant story http://www.courant.com/news/politics/hc-consumer-unit-laid-off-0728-20110727,0,4861075.story

And no, this is NOT part of Governor Malloy’s Plan B Budget (the plan that he is implementing should Connecticut’s state employees not approve the Malloy/SEBAC Concession plan.)

This is a stand-alone decision by the Malloy Administration to lay off the 14 members of the former DPUC, now DEEP Energy Division’s consumer services operation.

As quoted in the Courant, according to one of the state employees who received a layoff notice, “the unit provides information and assistance to consumers facing problems ranging from billing issues and choices of electricity providers to more serious issues — such as threatened service cutoffs that could cause a medical emergency for patients who rely on electrically operated equipment”.

Ending an important consumer service during the greatest recession since the Great Depression is strange enough, but considering the funding for this program actually comes from a special surcharge on the utility companies, the cut seems particularly misguided.

Since at least the 1950s, Connecticut law mandates an assessment on the companies that are regulated by the Department of Public Utility Commission. This year, when the new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection was created, the assessment required by Connecticut State Statue §16-49 was shifted to cover the costs associated with the new agency’s “bureau of energy, the Office of Consumer Counsel, PURA, and other work regarding consumer protection and advocacy.”

The new law even expanded the assessment to include “certified competitive video service providers”

The way the assessment works, eliminating the utility hotline doesn’t free up money for some vital program for poor children.

By cutting out the program, the money either stays with the utility companies or is used in some other agency activity.  While the DEEP is certainly engaged in a variety of important projects it is very hard to believe that protecting Connecticut consumers from unfair utility company practices isn’t a high enough priority to be maintained, especially during these difficult economic times.

Let’s hope today’ publicity will help convince someone in the Malloy Administration to stand up and put an end to this absurd proposal.

DEP leader calls controversial land deal “not the most important environmental issue”

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Once an outspoken environmental advocate and leader on the Board of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Dan Esty, Malloy’s Commissioner charged with protecting the environmental explains how he sees things differently now that he is wearing a different hat.

Not wanting to upset a powerful state senator, Governor Malloy and Esty spent the recent session of the Connecticut Legislature ducking any and all opportunities to voice an opinion on a controversial land swap deal that was opposed by most of Connecticut’s environmental groups, including organizations in which Esty had played leadership roles.

Now, with the session over, Commissioner Dan Esty has dismissed the long-standing concern about the project and even took a shot at environmentalists for, what was reported as, “focusing so much attention on the controversial proposal.”

The land deal trades 17 acres of state-owned land along the Connecticut River to a real estate developer for 87.7 acres adjacent to the Cockaponset State Forest. The 17 acres of state land were purchased for conservation purposes by the Connecticut’s Recreation and Natural Heritage Trust Fund. It is presently part of a Wildlife Management Area.

More than two dozen Connecticut environmental organizations opposed the land swap deal including Friends of Connecticut State Parks, the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, Audubon Connecticut, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the state Association of Inland Wetland and Conservation Commissions the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, the Connecticut River Gateway Commission, the Nature Conservancy, Middletown-based Jonah Center for Earth and Art, the State Association of Inland Wetland and Conservation Commissions and land trusts from the surrounding communities.

The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, one of the groups Esty was particularly active with, strongly opposed the project saying “Land that has been dedicated to conservation should not be swapped in this way. How will this affect donations if the donor knows that deeded conservation land could someday become a shopping center?”

As a result of the concerns that were raised by the environmental community, Governor Rell vetoed the deal when it passed the Assembly last year.

However, thanks to a massive lobbying campaign, and the support of a Democratically controlled legislature and governor’s office, the bill on the land swap will now become law.

A range of environmental experts presented a well-documented case for their opposition to the swap.

However, in a must-read story in CT Environmental Headlines, Esty argued that the deal was “not the most important environmental issue” and went on to say that environmentalists had “blown the issue out of proportion.”

Explaining his position, Esty said that as a former member of a Planning and Zoning Commission, he believed it was important to defer to local officials.

However, Esty failed to mention that one key local official, the Democratic freshman State Representative Philip Miller, strongly opposed the bill, pointing out that the land the state was being asked to give away was purchased as conservation land and should not be developed under any circumstance.

Proponents of the transfer have countered with that claim that the actually wording of the purchase agreement was that the land in question should be used for conservation land, and since it didn’t say “shall be for conservation land, ” the development of the property is okay.

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