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As part of his effort to meet with leaders of all 169 Connecticut towns, Governor Ned Lamont met with Westbrook First Selectman Noel Bishop on April 2. Bishop, upon being contacted by Lamont’s office late the previous day, quickly arranged for the meeting to be held at Water’s Edge and invited town officials, a selection of Westbrook business leaders, and others to attend.
“We were very favorably impressed that the governor took the time to come to us,” Bishop said after the meeting. “He did not talk down to us. He was interested in listening.”
“I think the general observation [of those who attended the meeting] is that the governor’s new,” said Sam Gold, executive director of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG). “He inherited a terrible situation with the state finances. And budgets that were balanced on gimmicks. He said a number of times that the budget he submitted was the first truly honest budget that they’ve had in a while... He was very honest that that’s not going to make him popular, but that he stands by the fact that he’s putting something out there that actually meets the state’s obligations.
“Noel is great at running meetings,” Gold continued. “He got a good cross-section of people [and] made the most of the time that the governor gave us.”
Gold asked Lamont about a bill under consideration in the General Assembly, H.B. 7192, An Act Concerning Municipal and Regional Opportunities and Efficiencies. Introduced by two Democratic state representatives and two Democratic state senators, the bill, according to Gold, expands the roles of COGs while cutting funding.
“If the state wants to have COGs around to provide regionalized services, they do need to fund our regional services grants, which provide the staff to work on these projects,” Gold said.
“There was some discussion about making sure that regional services, however they’re rolled out, are done in a way that works for the different parts of Connecticut and our different towns,” he continued. “There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
Gold was encouraged by Lamont’s ideas about how information technology can save money and make government more efficient. Around 12,000 state employees will retire by 2022, Gold said, a phenomenon known as the silver tsunami.
“The state needs to get prepared for what they’re going to do,” he said, saying that while he believes it’s an opportunity for the state to save money through attrition, “you’re going to need to find ways of reducing labor, and technology and automation have a role in that.
“Every state agency has its own computer network and systems. There’s no uniformity across state departments,” Gold said. “This is, of course, the governor’s background. I think this is an easy thing for him to get behind.”
Another attendee, Westbrook Republican Town Committee Chair Harry Ruppenicker, Jr., of Harry’s Marine Repair, said he brought up concerns about new state regulations for dredging at marinas.
“I explained to the governor that our family has had a marina here in town since 1965 and that we need to dredge once a decade in order to keep the depth because there’s sediment that comes from the meadows upriver,” Ruppenicker said.
“For the past 50 years the permitting process has been fairly simple and straightforward,” he continued, “and now new rules have made it very expensive and onerous. You have to hire professionals, engineers, and different specialties. So now what used to be a $400 permitting fee, now you have to incur anywhere from $25,000 and up in expenses just to get the permit.
“If you have a small marina... with only 20 slips, you’re not going to be able to afford to dredge it because you can’t amortize those costs over so few slips,” he said.
Ruppenicker suggested that there be two permits: one for routine maintenance dredging and a separate, more complex, one for creating new marinas.
Lamont seemed sympathetic to his concerns, said Ruppenicker.
“I don’t think he was aware of the situation and he did promise to look into it. And then [State] Representative Devin Carney followed up with me after the meeting and said that he would look into setting up a meeting with DEEP [the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection] to see if there was anything to be done about it,” Ruppenicker said.
The morning of the meeting with Lamont, Westbrook Building Inspector David Maiden assembled building inspectors and fire marshals from 34 different towns for a training session in Westbrook led by Don Lucas, a retired building official from Old Saybrook. The session addressed preliminary damage assessment (PDA) of structures after a catastrophic event. He brought concerns raised at the training session to the meeting with Lamont.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “requires that the emergency management officer in each municipality has a team that’s ready to respond immediately upon a catastrophic event and do a PDA of all structures,” Maiden said. That information is then provided to FEMA “within 36 hours and they calculate the amount of aid that the federal government provides to the municipality.”
The state does not “have set protocol on how that happens once we have a storm event,” he continued. “It’s mostly volunteers from the fire department or town employees that create the team and do the assessments.
“I requested [that Lamont] look into some set directive statewide to have those teams in place prior to a storm event. He was very receptive,” said Maiden.
Lamont asked if towns could share an emergency director, and Maiden told him yes, this is permitted under state statute.
Maiden was happy with the meeting.
“It was very refreshing that we have a business leader in government,” he said. “He’s not a politician; he’s a businessman. He’s owned a business, he’s run a business, and he’s a businessman going to Hartford to try to run this state as a business, not as a government entity. It was refreshing to feel the energy and the devotion he has for improving Connecticut’s welfare.”
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