OLD LYME — Contradictory statements from town and state agency officials have raised further doubts about the status of $256,000 in legacy state funding for the Lieutenant River project on Halls Road in Old Lyme — funds that at least one town commissioner believes were green-lighted months earlier by the Connecticut Port Authority.
The funds were left over from a $1.6 million Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) grant given to Old Lyme in 2015 for dredging in the Black Hall and Four Mile rivers. In 2016, the newly-created port authority assumed oversight of legacy maritime grants, including the dredging funds for Old Lyme.
In a May 30 telephone conversation, Andrew Lavigne, Business Development and Special Projects Manager for the port authority, explained to staff at CT Examiner that Old Lyme’s grant originated under CTDOT rules that allow towns to use leftover monies for other maritime projects as long as “all the relevant proposal’s procurement protocols are followed.”
However, at a special meeting of the port authority on June 19, the board voted to table the Town of Old Lyme’s request to use the legacy funding, and to remand the decision to the state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM), citing the need to clarify state funding rules.
Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, previously vice chair of the port authority board, was elected chair at the June 19 meeting, and recused herself and was not present for the discussion or vote.
Reply not favorable
In a July 11 email to members of the Old Lyme Harbor Management Commission, cc’ed to Reemsnyder and prior commission member Ned Farman, commission chair Steven Ross informed members that the OPM had rejected Old Lyme’s reuse of leftover funding.
“A CT PA Board member had questioned if the funds could be allocated to another water related project in Old Lyme other than dredging which was the original purpose of the grants we received.” wrote Ross. “An inquiry was made to the State Office of Policy & Management and their reply was not favorable.”
That decision was apparently made at the port authority’s July 9 meeting, though the issue is not included on the agenda, and minutes are not yet available.
A big question mark
Asked to clarify whether the request for approval had been denied, at an evening meeting on July 11 at the Old Lyme town hall, Reemsnyder said she didn’t know if the OPM had made a decision and said she had recused herself from the June 19 vote.
“I don’t think they voted on it, but I don’t know because I wasn’t there, because I recused myself, I left the room. What I understand is they are going to OPM to confirm whether or not this is appropriate use of the funds,” she said. “It was under the DOT, this is how they handled it, now because it’s under the CPA, and we have OPM sitting at the table, we had a question about it, this is my understanding. It’s getting kicked back, but who it’s getting kicked back to, I’m not positive.”
When asked whether the OPM had made a decision, Reemsnyder said, “I don’t have the answer.”
“This is the way funds have always been handled, when it was under the umbrella of the DOT, so it’s a new board, it’s a new umbrella, so we have to figure out what we’re doing. Plus you have a new administration, so you have a new DOT commissioner, you have a new OPM guy sitting at the table and everyone wants to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” she said.
“I did let the harbor management commission know there was a big question mark and that I didn’t have the answer, but I was going to try to follow up on it. Obviously I would like to see the project move forward because I think it’s a worthy project so there may be other ways to get it done without money from that.”
The point of contention, Reemsnyder told CT Examiner staff, was a matter of procedures and policies with the handover from CTDOT to the port authority, not concerns of impropriety.
“So, to think that someone did something wrong is not accurate. It was just being handled the way it’s been handled in the past and that was questioned so we have to find the answer to that question,” she said.
In the July 11 email, Ross reassured commission members that Bonnie would attempt to secure approval from OPM, but that a positive outcome was doubtful.
“Bonnie said she will make an attempt to get a favorable ruling but she is not hopeful.”
Reemsnyder could not be reached for comment on July 12 and 13 to help clarify and update this report.
Adding further confusion and doubt to the funding decision, in a July 12 email Lavigne wrote to CT Examiner to say that the port authority is waiting to hear OPM’s ruling on the issue.
“CPA needs to wait until we hear back from OPM. We don’t have any new updates. We are happy to reach back out once we’ve received clarification from OPM,” Lavigne wrote.
Funding for smaller ports and towns
In the July 11 email, Ross expressed great disappointment with the apparent funding decision, which in his view calls into question port authority attention to the needs of small towns along the shoreline and rivers.
“When the CT PA was created and given the authority for maritime activities, particularly those involving harbors and ports, the small towns along the shoreline and rivers were concerned that the CT PA would focus their efforts only on the larger ports and we would receive little or no attention,” he wrote. “This appears to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy given the situation with our proposed ADA accessible water access project on the LT River.”
Ross was frustrated given that after the dredging project was completed under budget, the town was told that the leftover funds could be re-purposed for the Lieutenant River landing.
“We were excellent stewards of the dredging grants and those projects were completed under budget, yet the funds are being denied to us. We were led to believe from the onset that the surplus funds could be applied to this project.”
In a phone conversation with CT Examiner staff on July 11, Ross also said that the deadline for the port authority’s Small Harbor Improvement Projects Program (SHIPP) had just passed in June, and if he had received word in time that the expected funding had been rejected, then the town could have applied for a SHIPP grant to pay for the Lieutenant River project.
Ross also said he was disappointed in OPM’s decision because the Harbor Management Commission, Reemsnyder and Docko, a marine design and construction firm, had already put in hundreds of hours of work on the project under the assumption the funding would be approved.
“It is also troubling that the decision comes at this point in the process despite the CT PA having been kept informed all through the process of bringing this project to the point of having gone to bid and is simply awaiting funds we were led to believe would be released for it,” he wrote. “A huge amount of time and work was expended by the HMC, Bonnie and Docko and to be informed at this late stage is problematic to me.”