Candlewood Lake Authority finances earn scrutiny

Photo of Rob Ryser

Top elected leaders from the towns that border Candlewood Lake had a money talk recently with the authority that governs the lake.

The goal was to get a clear picture of the Candlewood Lake Authority's strained finances.

The meeting was termed an occasion to clear the air of bad feelings caused by the organization's budget crisis.

"We understand your concern for us to be fiscally responsible -- we intend to be and we attempt to be," said Phyllis Schaer, the unpaid CLA executive director. "But I think attempts to undermine and discredit the CLA is a bigger issue that needs to be put on the table."

Schaer was referring to tension between the leadership of the Candlewood Lake Authority and some of the towns it serves over increased funding requests it made this year because the lake's owner, First Light Hydro Generating Co., cut its voluntary contribution to the authority's budget by 80 percent.

Candlewood Lake Authority leaders left the hourlong meeting at town hall in New Milford with assurances the towns would help make up the difference for the cut from First Light, which some elected leaders characterized as the culprit of the crisis.

The Candlewood Lake Authority is a committee created by New Milford, Sherman, Danbury, New Fairfield and Brookfield 43 years ago to preserve and patrol the state's largest lake, even though the lake is owned by an electric utility.

The towns will each contribute about $77,000 toward the Candlewood Lake Authority's $534,000 budget for next year. First Light is contributing $10,000. The rest must be collected through fundraising.

"We are quibbling over tens of thousands of dollars, and you have a billion-dollar company that owns the lake which should be writing the check," Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said.

"It seems crazy to me that we end up having to pick up the pieces," he added, "on an asset that is not owned by any of us. Maybe we need to look at litigation."

After the meeting, a First Light spokesman said the charge that the utility needs to take on a greater financial obligation for the stewardship of the lake is not new.

"We believe we have been very committed to doing what is best for the lake," said First Light spokesman Len Greene.

He explained the utility has multiple obligations under its license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC.)

"We have many internal programs we manage as part of the requirement for our FERC license," Greene said, "that is on top of the historical funding of the lake association over the last few years."

The April 13 discussion in New Milford repeatedly returned to concerns about the Candlewood Lake Authority budget not living within its budget.

"Are you going to end this year in the black or in the red?" asked Susan Chapman, the first selectman of New Fairfield. "Where are you at with your budget?"

"We are planning to be in the black, not in the red," Schaer said.

"But you don't know that yet," Chapman queried.

"The year hasn't ended yet, and we are coming into our highest-cost season," Schaer said. "Our intent is to work within our budget."

That was what elected leaders wanted to hear.

"You can get to the end of the year without asking for more money, because you are not going to get it," said Boughton.

Once the summer season is over, the five elected leaders plan to meet again in the fall to have an extended and in depth-discussion about future funding of the Candlewood Lake Authority.

CLA leaders said they would welcome a closer working relationship.

"I like the fact that we are all together today trying to discuss these issues and work it out," Schaer said. "I think that will be healthy on a going-forward basis."

rryser@newstimes.com; 203-731-3342