OLD LYME — The Connecticut Port Authority elected new leadership Wednesday, tapping Bonnie Reemsnyder, First Selectwoman of Old Lyme, as its new chair in a special meeting of the authority at the Old Lyme town hall. The board also voted to table the Town of Old Lyme’s request to use legacy grant funding for a project along the Lieutenant River, citing the need for clarification of the original Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) bond.
In a 13 to 1 vote, with 1 abstention, the port authority elected Reemsnyder, who has served as the board’s vice chair since the Port Authority’s inception in 2014. She has also served as chair of the authority’s finance subcommittee. She replaced former chair Scott Bates, who announced at the meeting he would step down at the end of his term, effective immediately. Bates, who has served as chair since 2014, will continue to serve out his two-year term as a member of the board.
The board unanimously elected David Kooris, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, as vice chair. Reemsnyder and Kooris will lead the quasi-public agency for the next two years. The authority is responsible for marketing and coordinating the development of the state’s three deep water ports and small harbors.
Bates praises new leadership
Bates said Reemsnyder was the best person to lead the port authority into its next phase, including the nearly $100 million expansion and redevelopment of the State Pier in New London, the centerpiece of the state’s ongoing efforts to enter the offshore wind energy sector.
“She is leading a community that is riverine and also on the sound. And water is part of the lifeblood of Old Lyme,” Bates said. “And being a chief executive of a municipality, she is going to understand what municipal leaders need across that state and I think that combination makes her the right person for the job. She’s tough when needed and brings people together whenever it’s possible and that’s a great leader and that why I was so excited when she said she would take this on.”
Bates, who has also served as Deputy Secretary of the State of Connecticut since January 2017, said one of his greatest accomplishments as chair was the $93 million transformation of State Pier in New London into a wind energy hub, turning it into “a source of development for the maritime industry statewide because resources that are spun off from there can be invested in maritime projects.”
He also said he was proud of the port authority’s Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program, known as SHIPP, that matches municipal funding for maritime projects.
“You look at communities that had plans on the shelf, they weren’t moving. We said we’ll put up 50 percent if you do, so that’s a real partnership with localities and I think it’s a good model for how the state can move forward,” he said.
Reemsnyder, who chaired the remainder of the meeting after Bates stepped down, said she planned to start building her team immediately.
Redirected funding draws questions
Earlier in the meeting, the board voted to table the Town of Old Lyme’s request to re-designate $71,337.50 in unspent state bond funds from a previous dredging project toward planning and design of a ramp and walkway at the Lieutenant River near Halls Road.
Reemsnyder recused herself from the vote and was not present during the discussion.
The funds are part of $256,000 remaining from a $1.6 million Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) grant given to Old Lyme in 2015 for dredging the Black Hall and Four Mile rivers.
In a CT Examiner story on May 31, it was reported that the town would be able to redirect the unused funding toward the Lieutenant River plan under CTDOT rules. That explanation came in a May 30 phone interview with Andrew Lavigne, who oversees business development and special projects at the port authority.
In 2016, legacy CTDOT funding was transferred to the then-new port authority. Under current rules, unspent funding for municipal maritime projects would revert back to SHIPP.
However, at Wednesday’s meeting, Evan Matthews, executive director of the authority, said the board wanted to check whether the request for the use of funds was consistent with the original bond terms under the department of transportation.
“I didn’t know it was so controversial, I thought it was an administrative move that there’s left over money from Old Lyme, the money can only be spent by Old Lyme on maritime stuff, but we’re going back to look at the original authorization,” he said.
Matthews said his office was working with the board member Jonathan Harris, who represents the state’s Office of Public Management.
“The main concern is that the board wants to make sure that the current request is eligible to be funded under the original authorization. When the Port Authority was created, they transferred administratively the state pier, which was under the control of DOT and certain authorizations to fund dredging projects and other authorizations they transferred those administratively to the Port Authority. It’s a legacy project,” he said.
Harris told the board he would “take this under my wing” to find a resolution.
In other business, several board members sought clarification of the port authority’s 2018-19 and 2019-20 budget figures.
Pohorylo cites “balance sheet error”
Because Gateway, the new State Pier operator, paid $500,000 in rent through April 2020, revenues appeared to be high, Reemsnyder told the board. However, because Gateway will not have access to the State Pier during construction beginning in January 2020, the port authority will refund four months of rent, or $166,667.
Board member David Pohorylo said the $500,00 payment should have been apportioned so that ⅙ appeared in the 2018-19 budget and ⅚ was listed in the 2019-20 budget.
“That’s a balance sheet error,” he said.
The budget also showed a carryover of $459,000, funds that “should either be returned to the state, or in lieu of that you could ask permission to use as revenue from the state,” Pohorylo said. “That would be the proper way to handle it — you can’t put carryovers into future revenue — you have to do things properly.”
He said he had never been shown a detailed statement or balance sheet for the port authority.
“I’ve learned that’s where you start looking at things, without that I don’t know what these numbers are,” he said.
Reemsnyder said the board recently hired finance staff who would work to correct the figures.
“I didn’t like this system of taking carryover as income either but it’s important to know that as finance chair I’m not working in the office. I’m given the finance records by the staff. We recently hired a new finance person and she is in contact with a CPA who is going to be working on correcting some of those things and it’s the right way to do it but it does take time… we just need a little more time to get there. I don’t disagree with you,” Reemsnyder said.
Pohorylo said it was important to make the budget as accurate as possible. Reemsnyder said she didn’t like the way the budget was set up from the beginning.
“It will be done properly,” she said.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the vote to confirm Bonnie Reemsnyder as chair was 13 to 1 with 1 abstention (not 8 to 1 with 1 abstention). It has also been revised to clarify that Scott Bates completed his term prior to stepping down as chair.