At issue is Public Act 07-244 signed into law by Gov. Rell in July that allows the city to change the use of watershed land to "allow for the lease of 131 acres." The approved legislation would allow New Britain to enter into a long-term lease with Tilcon, Inc. valued at $15 million -- an estimated $375,000 per year over 40 years. This is the amount cited by Stewart, but not much more is known about the proposed deal since it has been kept under wraps at City Hall until the 11th hour move to get the special legislation last June. The adopted legislation contains provisions inserted into the amendment by New Britain lawmakers that requires Tilcon to restore the leased land "for a public drinking water reservoir" and "the surrounding land for reforestation." The measure, however, drew sharp editorial criticisms three times in The Hartford Courant, the latest coming on August 10. The editorials asserted that the legislative "rat" allows the lease of watershed at the expense of environmental protection.
Allowing Tilcon, Inc. to lease the land also brought opposition from Hickory Hill residents at an August 7th "Night Out" meeting attended by State Senator Don DeFronzo, 24th District State Rep. Timothy O'Brien, Stewart and others officials.
Complaints at the Hickory Hill Night Out meeting prompted Mayor Stewart to back away --at least temporarily-- from a Tilcon lease deal, despite the likelihood that his own Water Department has been discussing the lease behind closed doors for months -- without notification to residents, the City Council nor legislators.
Pointing fingers at the Democratic lawmakers for the legislation without owning up to making the request himself, Stewart told residents they needed to petition the city on the issue and he would considering complying. The call for a petition may have allayed concerns of some residents according to an August 8th Herald story, but Stewart gave no assurances that the lease to Tilcon would not occur.
State Rep. O'Brien, writing on his blog last week, has weighed in on the late-filed bill that would permit a lease to Tilcon in confirming his plans to repeal the special legislation.
"Approving this legislation in the first place was a tough call. It was presented to the New Britain legislative delegation in the hectic final days of the legislative session because - we were told - the city had just recently been informed of the need for legislative approval and that a delay of the matter to the 2008 session - which I would have preferred - would completely deny the city the opportunity for $15 million in non-tax revenue."
O'Brien said Democrats, during the last days of the 2007 session, "decided the best course of action, rather than keeping the city from even considering the idea, would be to place very strict requirements" on a Tilcon lease proposal, including their insertion of public hearings and environmental guarantees before the lease arrangement could move forward.
"After having now heard the concerns of people who live in the neighborhood around the proposed site and after learning more of the facts about this proposed deal, Senator DeFronzo and I have decided that this proposal, as a whole, is not in the best interests of the city, said O'Brien. "The Mayor has placed the onus on the neighborhood residents to prove that this deal should not go forward by saying that they should collect petition signatures before he will decide to reject this deal. But the neighborhood opposition to the city's plan with Tilcon is already very clear.
And that is why Senator DeFronzo and I are doing just what the neighborhood is asking us to - we are acting to repeal this law."
The Stewart Administration's interest in completing a lease with Tilcon may not be over despite Stewart's questionable posturing in front of residents on August 7th.
Tilcon's interest in acquiring a lease is represented at the city and state levels by Jay F. Malcynsky, a prominent New Britain Republican, whose firm, Gaffney, Bennett and Associates, is one of the state's most influential lobbying firms. Malcynsky has close ties to Republicans in the Mayor's office, the Governor's office and considerable experience working with Democratic legislators. Late last week Malcynsky was reportedly still trying to get the measure back on track.
Senator DeFronzo and Rep.O'Brien, however, are adamant that the measure allowing a lease to move forward needs to be rescinded at the earliest opportunity. They are convinced that the Stewart administration misrepresented facts about the Tilcon deal prior to the votes they cast for passage.
Subsequent efforts to allow a lease of watershed will get the full hearings and legislative oversight that they deserve. Meanwhile, the relationship between Stewart and New Britain's lawmakers couldn't be frostier.